A joyful start to the school year

Catholic schools launch new school year, offer options for families

Carol Nesbitt

The start of the 2020-2021 school year for our Catholic schools has proven to be, like the rest of 2020, highly unusual.

Much of the start of the school year is like it always has been; students are excited to put on their uniforms and get back to class, anxious to see their teachers and classmates. Teachers have been working hard to prepare their classrooms and lesson plans to welcome their students back to school.

What is not usual is that students and staff do health screenings before they even leave the house. When they arrive at school, they are now wearing masks, have their temperatures checked, and experience a new set of protocols that have become part of their daily routines, from keeping a six foot distance whenever possible to frequently using hand sanitizer to eating their lunches at their desks instead of shoulder-to-shoulder at a lunch table. It’s all part of a robust, multi-layered plan designed to keep those in our school communities safe from the coronavirus.

While many schools throughout northern Colorado made the decision to launch the school year remotely, the Office of Catholic Schools, in conjunction with an OCS Health Task Force and a panel of health professionals from Centura Health, prayerfully made the decision to start the school year with in-person learning.

Catholic school students returned to in-person learning Aug. 24. In partnership with Centura Health, each school implemented various safety protocols, including temperature checks. (Photos by Carol Nesbitt)

“We know the education and formation of children is best accomplished when it comes in community through direct encounter with one another,” says Elias Moo, Superintendent. “Nothing can fully replace the goodness, beauty and educational experience of being physically together as a school community. We have heard from the Lord the call to be disciples and have been inspired by him to welcome students back to in-school learning and to do so with great regard for the health of our community.”

That decision is also reflected in some of the Root Beliefs established by the Office of Catholic Schools and school administrators including:

We believe that community and human encounter is the best way to form children and allow them to flourish.

We believe that we are Catholic communities of charity and solidarity, called to seek and protect the good, safety, health, and well-being of our children, families, and teachers, especially the most vulnerable in our community (i.e. the elderly or immunocompromised).

Many areas needed to be tweaked and re-tweaked by administrators as the start of the school year approached. Teachers had to re-design their classrooms to provide for lots of spacing between desks. Extra chairs, desks, bookshelves, comfy seating – all of it had to be moved out of the rooms. Some schools moved bigger classes into larger rooms – gymnasiums, cafeterias, conference rooms, even spreading out into spaces at their parishes. Car lines were reconfigured so that temperature checks could be taken before students even left their cars. Hand sanitizer stations and signage with reminders about washing hands and keeping your distance from your friends are now abundantly displayed throughout the schools. New cleaning and regular sanitization routines were established. Principals have called the process “joyful, invigorating and exhausting all at the same time.”

Still, despite all the changes and challenges, administrators, teachers, staff members and families are happy to be back together for in-person learning.

“Students have a level of joy and appreciation for being able to be with their Christ the King family,” says Erich Hoffer, principal at Christ the King Catholic School. “Our students are doing their very best to follow protocols and protect their friends and teachers.  There are some growing pains because it’s hard for young students to distance and not be close to their friends, but we are getting better each and every day.”

“Our first day of school was the most joyful start of school that I have ever experienced,” says Mrs. Tamara Whitehouse, Head of School at Our Lady of Lourdes North. “The students are filled with excitement and life. Parents have expressed their gratitude for this opportunity. Teachers are full of enthusiasm and love for their children.  This has been a beautiful answer to the prayers we have been offering since we closed.”

Students were happy to return to class and see their teachers and friends, despite circumstances not being back to “normal.”

Many parents have articulated to staff members their appreciation for the hard work that went into a return to in-school learning. “We are so grateful to be able to have our children back in school,” says Kate and Mike Azevedo, parents of Addison (5th grade) and Reagan (3rd grade) who attend Christ the King. “The amount of work that the principal, teachers and staff have put into being able to bring the students back safely has been amazing.”

Keeping students safely in school requires everyone to do their part, and principals say families are happily complying. “They have honored this opportunity by being diligent in completing their health screens each and every day, limiting their bubbles to avoid potential exposure, and following school norms in their own homes,” says Hoffer.

Many of our Catholic schools also saw increased inquiries and higher enrollments, as students who were previously in schools that were starting the school year virtually made the switch to one of our schools to take advantage of in-school learning.  A number of schools even had to establish waiting lists at certain grade levels, in part due to additional spacing requirements and in part due to the new students helping to fill their classrooms.

St. Isidore Catholic Curriculum, an online option

For those families not yet comfortable with in-person learning, the Office of Catholic Schools launched a new, fully online program named after St. Isidore, the patron saint of the internet and computers. The K-8 curriculum was offered mainly to families who currently have children enrolled in one of our 34 elementary schools.

Initially, administrators thought that perhaps 80-100 students system-wide would enroll. Now, nearly 500 students have enrolled in the program. Dr. Carla Capstick, former principal at Blessed Sacrament, is St. Isidore’s organizational leader. She says school leaders are thrilled to be able to offer this online option to our families. “Our belief is that the only true education is Catholic education because Catholic education can tend to the formation of the whole person,” says Dr. Capstick. “During these uncertain times, we feel that part of our mission is to provide an online Catholic curriculum option for parents who feel that in-person learning is not possible for their situation.”

One of the beautiful components of this online option, according to Capstick, is that students are receiving their instruction virtually while remaining part of their current Catholic school. “Families are still connected to their home schools and will communicate with them just as they would if their children were in-person.” And, when the time is right for each family, the students can move back into in-person schooling.

The Gerd family enrolled their three children in the St. Isidore Online Curriculum, an online learning option facilitated by the Office of Catholic Schools for those families who are not comfortable with in-person learning.

Parents who chose St. Isidore are grateful for this opportunity to have their children still be a part of our Catholic schools, but receive their education virtually. Mary Jo Gerd and her husband, Eric, have students enrolled at Our Lady of Lourdes, but recently enrolled their three children, Max (8th grade), Charlie (6th grade), and Josie  (4th grade), in St. Isidore. When they heard that the Catholic schools were going to offer an online curriculum option, they were thrilled.

“It was an answer to our prayers because we weren’t ready to go back to in-school learning,” said Mary Jo. “I thought it was such a compassionate response [by the archdiocese] as to how they’re dealing with this crisis. And we wanted to stay connected to our school community – that was so important to us.”

Gerd says they also loved the fact that their decision didn’t mean the kids would have to do distance learning the entire year.

“We love the idea of that when we’re comfortable to return to an actual school, we can seamlessly return; we don’t have to wait a year to go back. Meeting us with such grace and compassion was really profoundly good for our family. Parents having that freedom to make their own decisions about what’s right for their own family or their own domestic church was such a beautiful expression of Christianity.”

Whether our Catholic school students are learning virtually or in person, we are all very grateful to all of our school leaders and personnel who have worked so hard to provide options for families and make it happen in this most unusual school year.

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COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.