Catholic schools plan to reopen for in-school learning this fall

Aaron Lambert

Having endured a rather challenging last few months of the school year, parents of Catholic school students can now rest easy with the knowledge that Catholic schools will be open this fall.

In a letter issued May 29, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and Denver Catholic Schools Superintendent Elias Moo announced plans to reopen Catholic schools for in-school learning for the 2020-21 school year. At the forefront of these plans is the health and safety of students and faculty.

“We will carry out in-person instruction with increased health protocols and processes to ensure that our schools are going above and beyond to protect the health of every member of our Catholic school community, especially our most high-risk members,” said Archbishop Aquila and Moo in their letter. “We are confident our schools’ protocols and processes will keep our school environments as healthy and as safe as possible for all members of our communities.”

To help ensure healthy school environments are maintained, a task force composed of school leaders, nurse practitioners, doctors and a virologist has been assembled. This group is working with schools to identify the best health measures and policies in preparation for the coming school year.

For those parents who may not feel comfortable sending their children to school for any in-school learning, the archdiocese and Office of Catholic Schools are also formulating a virtual distance-learning option. Families who are interested will still be able to receive instruction in core content areas while remaining connected to their local school community. More details on this option will be available at the end of June.

Recognizing the unique challenges parents have faced over these past few months as schools have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Archbishop Aquila and Moo expressed sincere gratitude for their increased efforts in making distance learning a success.

“None of this would have been possible without the incredible efforts made by our parents to play an even bigger role in their children’s education,” they said. “While balancing your own work, caring for your families and other day-to-day responsibilities, you have stepped up to make sure we had a productive finish to the school year.”

Given the fluidity of the COVID-19 pandemic, Archbishop Aquila and Moo said that Catholic schools will continue to abide by mandated health protocols while working to keep Catholic schools operating for the good of the communities they serve.

“Our Catholic schools are a critical part of the educational ecosystem and fabric of our state, and we remain committed to working in a spirit of cooperation with our local and state officials when possible as we all seek to advance the common good of our communities,” they concluded.

As plans for reopening Denver’s Catholic schools are continually developed, parents are invited to participate in a survey to help school leadership consider the needs of the community so they can open schools in the safest possible manner. The survey can be accessed by visiting denvercatholicschools.com.

COMING UP: Catholic schools emergency relief fund: A ‘game changer’

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Learning in a classroom has its challenges; learning from home, however, is a challenge all its own.

Third grader Emmanuel attends St. Stephen Catholic School in Glenwood Springs. Since the suspension of in-school learning many weeks ago, he’s been using his mom’s “burner” cell phone to try to access his school assignments. It’s not ideal, but it’s all he had. Emmanuel’s mom, Eladia, shared how getting a computer and internet would impact his education.

Everything would change because right now, on the cell phone, he doesn’t have access to sites that require the internet and can’t read the books on EPIC,” Eladia said. “It will help our family because he will be able to learn more. It will benefit Emmanuel and us, too, to be able to be online with his principal and his teachers.”

Many of our Catholic school families, like Emmanuel’s, were struggling to access their children’s distance learning content, putting the students at real risk of falling behind. Kathleen Peek, a third grade teacher, said, “My students who do not have access to computers at home are not able to view my lesson plans (and therefore complete the lessons), join class Zoom meetings, or turn in completed work.” For other students, the challenge is having only one device in the home when both parents are trying to work from home at the same time several of their children are scheduled for online classes.

“I have students who have not been able to attend Zoom meetings because families are doing their best to work and learn from the same devices. They have lost the opportunity to communicate with their peers in this isolating time,” says fifth grade teacher Sara Guerrieri.

Hard to track progress

For teachers, the challenge is trying to assess how well their students are learning when they don’t have access to technology.

Without access to YouTube videos, online lesson plans on parents’ web, and Google forms for assessment it is difficult to track the learning that is occurring,” says Katie Glennon, a middle school science and math teacher.

Now, however, thanks to the new Catholic Schools Emergency Relief Fund launched by the Office of Catholic Schools and Seeds of Hope, Emmanuel and more than 500 students across our schools now have access to computers, their lessons, and their teachers.

Donna Bornhoft, principal of St. Mary in Greeley, holds newly purchased computers which made distance learning for the school’s students much more feasible. (Photo provided)

Sara Alkayali, Principal of Frassati Catholic Academy, says they’ve been making it work. “Our administrative assistant has been printing items for our families and coordinating delivery to further assist them, but having their own technology in their homes to attend Zoom meetings and watch video tutorials allows our students to fully access all of the quality learning our teachers are providing.”

A “game changer”

“This is a game changer for our students and their ability to connect with their teachers and classmates; these computers will allow the learning and teaching to continue during this pandemic,” says St. Stephen Principal Glenda Oliver.

In addition to the computers for kids, the Emergency Relief Fund is providing about 50 of our Catholic school teachers the technology they need to better facilitate their distance learning programs, improving their students’ overall engagement.

Donna Bornhoft, principal of St. Mary in Greeley, expressed gratitude that is echoed by all of our principals who received computers for their students in need. “This donation is an amazing help for these families. We are so very grateful for the generosity of the donors.”

Much more than providing devices

The other critical piece of the fundraising effort was to help our Catholic school families — and staff members as well — who have been most impacted by job loss or cutbacks due to business closures, causing real financial hardship. This fund will allow them to apply for emergency tuition assistance or help with registration fees for next year.

Applications for help have started to pour in, with more than 250 requests in only the first two weeks. As the days and weeks go on, that number will likely grow exponentially. The really good news is that the first disbursement of around $110,000 has already gone out to schools to help families.

Hundreds provide helping hand

Jay Clark, Executive Director of Seeds of Hope, the organization that raises scholarship dollars for students in our Catholic schools, says that more than 400 donors came forward to help.

“With just two emails, we raised more than $600,000 and counting to help these students, teachers and families,” Clark said. “To have so many people rally to help Catholic education is another stunning example of the generosity in our community and it is testimony to a belief in what goes on in our schools. Our community continues to shine a bright light and inspire through its actions.”