By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Gov. Kim Reynolds’ decision to require all Iowa public and nonpublic schools to open this fall with 50% of the instruction provided in-person and in brick and mortar buildings, surprised the Diocese of Davenport’s superintendent, Lee Morrison. However, the extensive planning that diocesan schools undertook to prepare for the coming school year provides the ability to adapt well, he said.
The governor made her announcement July 17, during a news conference in the Van Meter Community School District. “One of the most important milestones in our recovery effort is getting Iowa students back to school,” she said. “It is critical that we prioritize bringing Iowa’s children back to the classroom safely and responsibly.”
The governor’s decision also sets parameters for schools choosing to shut down a building or an entire system due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those decisions would require the involvement of the Iowa departments of Education and of Health, said Morrison. In addition, many of the restrictions on the use of substitute teaching personnel have been lifted or lessened.
“Our schools and committees of stakeholders have spent countless hours preparing for the opening of the 2020-21 school year,” Morrison said. “Each school prepared three Return to Learn plans as directed by the Department of Education. One each for online learning, one hybrid model and a plan to return to learn with in-person instruction for all students. So it was a bit of a surprise that Governor Reynolds decided on July 17th that those plans would be overridden and all schools would be required to provide in-person learning — removing local control from the equation.”
“All that time spent listening, learning and preparing was not spent in vain,” Morrison said. “We want to be proactive rather than reactive and all the summer planning will help to open schools well in the fall. We need to be ready to pivot and respond agilely to rapidly changing conditions throughout the school year.”
The number one priority for the upcoming school year is the “safety of our children, teachers, students, staff and volunteers,” Morrison said. “Not only is it possible to be creative and innovative in Catholic education in our diocese, it is necessary.” Each of the diocese’s 18 schools has written its own Return to Learn plans, “bringing to bear the different dynamics of the situations in each individual school. Our prayers are for the well-being of teachers, staff and students and their families as we prepare to open our diocesan schools this fall.”
Individual schools will provide information about all mitigation efforts. He cautions everyone to “remember this situation is very fluid, which will require schools to make last-minute changes.”
All of the schools have developed plans that include screening of staff and students, spacing movement and access and response to positive (COVID-19) tests among staff and students. The plans also address athletic practices and events, cleaning, food service, gatherings and extracurricular activities, additional housekeeping measures, general health and hygiene practices and practices to mitigate the likelihood of COVID-19 spread inside the school. The plans also call for face masks or face shields, and special consideration of grouping of students and teachers to prevent spread through crossover contact between large groups of students. Other measures address methods of social distancing, limitations on visitors and consideration of activities that can be held outdoors. School Masses will follow Mass guidelines of the Davenport Diocese.
Morrison noted that situations might vary from school to school. “Three of our elementary schools have a small-enough class size that allows easier separation than other schools. Schools are reconfiguring larger spaces into classrooms to allow more social distancing. Unnecessary furniture will be removed from classrooms to create appropriate social distancing.”
“We are following the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the local public health department and diocesan guidelines as we prepare for a safe return of our students in the fall,” Morrison said. “I am recommending that staff members wear face shields or masks.”
Additionally, schools will:
• Review proper hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette.
• Encourage face covering for staff and students.
• Maintain adequate supplies of soap and hand sanitizer to support healthy hygiene.
• Post signs to promote everyday protective measures.
• Ensure that additional cleaning and disinfecting will be done.
• Inspect water systems for sanitary conditions.
• Create cohorts of students for group activities such as recess, lunchroom seating, etc.
• Limit visitors.
• Provide virtual field trips rather than in-person field trips.
Regarding other details, such as busing, Morrison said that in most cases the public school district that provides transportation would determine the protocol for students’ placement inside buses.
“Those students who have alternate means of transportation would be encouraged to utilize those means during this critical time. We would encourage assigned seating so the same cohort of students would be sitting by each other every day and siblings should be seated together. Bus capacity will probably not allow for 6 feet of separation for riders.” For shorter distances, “riders should be wearing a mask and be seated every other seat if possible. The windows on the buses will be kept open as weather permits to have free flow of air.”
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