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A joyful start to the school year

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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Carol Nesbitt
Carol Nesbitt is the Director of Communications for the Office of Catholic Schools.
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