Schools on reopening: ‘It’s definitely been a learning experience’

Karen Witt
Prince of Peace Catholic School-Clinton student Baya Perryman gets a temperature check from Mrs. Hansen-Wauford before school on Sept. 25. Schools in the Davenport Diocese have been working to make their school environments safe for students and teachers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Barb Arland-Fye, Anne Marie Amacher and Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

When Assumption High School in Davenport celebrated its all-school Mass on Oct. 1, it required four separate liturgies held simultaneously in different parts of the building to maintain pandemic protocols. Four priests presided, one each for Mass with freshmen (small gym), sophomores (cafeteria), juniors (large gym) and seniors (auditorium). Four musicians, including two faculty members, played a musical instrument at their designated Mass.

The Mass builds faith and community, says Assumption President Andy Craig, explaining why the school devoted so much energy, planning and coordinating with the priests. “We normally have one priest and one Mass. Now we’re trying to coordinate with four priests who have busy schedules.” While he prefers having everyone together in one Mass, the change is “something we have to accept to have in-person learning” during the pandemic.
Assumption is one of 15 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Davenport learning on the fly how to safely educate students during a pandemic now in its seventh month and showing no signs of letting up. “In a lot of ways, we feel like we’re in our first year (of educating),” Craig says. “We’re trying to figure things out” in terms of the myriad of possibilities that arise when striving to mitigate the spread of a virus that defies school and home boundaries.
All of the schools developed return to learn plans, which must provide 50 percent of the instruction in-person in brick and mortar buildings. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds made that ann­oun­cement July 17, which gave schools — some of which opened in mid-Au­gust — about a month to prepare for in-person learning.

This week “will be our 10th week of school of everyone being able to attend face to face and five days a week,” said Bill Maupin, principal of Notre Dame Elementary and Junior/Senior High Schools. “This is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of all of our staff.”

“We are on week six of school, day 28 and we are grateful,” Celeste Vincent, principal of Regina Ele­mentary School in Iowa City, said last week. Teachers have “gone above and beyond to help in-person learners and online learners.”

“Our students and parents have helped in making sure our guidelines have been followed,” said Glenn Plummer, principal of Regina Junior/Senior High School. “Teachers and staff have done a great job in enforcing guidelines and protocols.” One of the biggest challenges, especially in the upper grades, is helping students to understand the importance of social distancing, Plum­mer noted. “You can’t ac­count for every situation. You need to communicate chan­ges and communicate that things will change as better and more current information is released. People need to be patient, flexible, and understanding.”

Craig of Assumption also praises faculty, staff and students for their resilience and ability to adapt to unprecedented changes. At Assum­p­tion, for example, classes take place in a variety of spaces, in additional to traditional classrooms now configured to adhere to the six-foot social distancing space requirement. Students clear their desks after each use and limit their close exposure to fellow classmates to 15 minutes or less. Last Friday, Craig observed a speech class outdoors. “The students have done an amazing job of adapting. It’s a testimony to them and their parents.”

Families desire in-person learning, Craig said. They view the socialization as critically important to their students’ development, more so after all schools had to move to remote learning when the pandemic took hold in Iowa in mid-March. “I saw it as a parent,” he added. “I think it’s important (for students) to have a connection with adults outside of their parents.”

The state of Iowa has advised schools against releasing specific statistics about COVID-19 cases. The leaders of Catholic schools interviewed for this story provided some generalized information about incidences of COVID-19 in their schools’ populations.

“I can tell you today (Oct. 2) that we have zero-positive faculty and zero-positive students that we know of, but that could change at any time,” Craig said. Assumption adheres diligently to the social distancing and cleaning protocols because families want in-person learning to continue. Due to the ability to safely distance students and teachers for all classes throughout the day, face coverings are not required at Assumption, except for attendance at Mass. Masks are strongly encouraged during passing times, and a number of students and faculty wear face coverings during the school day, he said.

No students, faculty or staff at Regina Catholic Schools have tested positive for COVID-19 so far this school year, Vincent and Plummer said. A few students were participating in remote learning as a safety protocol because of possible exposure. None of those potential cases turned out to be positive, the principals said. Some students from Notre Dame have tested positive for COVID-19 but no faculty or staff, “as of today” (Oct. 1), Maupin said.
Each school observes safety, health and cleaning protocols that include frequent sanitizing of  work spaces, physical distancing, use of hand sanitizer, avoidance of close contact exceeding 15 minutes and other steps tailored to the school’s needs. The use of face coverings varies from school to school because it is not a state mandate. Regina and Notre Dame require them.

Vincent said staffers carry extra masks in case a string breaks on a student or teacher’s mask. Students have more space between desks and all face the same direction. Multiple exit doors and staggered drop-off times help mitigate exposure to the virus. All elementary students participate in cohorts and remain in them throughout the day. Regina established mask break times and areas. Some learning occurs outdoors, when weather cooperates. The schools also have plans in place for students who choose remote learning or must do so because of exposure to the virus.

“It’s tough not to be cognizant that there’s a threat out there and we are mindful of that. But you also don’t want to be paralyzed by fear,” Craig said on behalf of the Assumption community. “We’re constantly evaluating what we’re doing as more guidance (from county, state and diocesan officials) becomes available. We’re not anywhere near the end point with having to make adjustments to our plans.”

He spoke with The Catholic Messenger during homecoming week, a ritual significantly altered to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The traditional pep rally, usually celebrated in the packed gym, moved outdoors to the practice football field at the St. Vincent Athletic Complex. Parents watched the rally from the bleachers and witnessed the crowning of the homecoming king and queen. A “socially distanced social” substituted for the homecoming dance on Saturday night.

As winter approaches, precluding many if not all outdoor activities, some tweaks will be necessary. “It is a constant rededication and mindset each day to look at the big picture and see what is working well and what we need to ‘change-up’ to make it even better,” Vincent said. “We can never let our guard down.”

The spike in COVID cases shows “You have to be respectful of the virus and what it can do. There’s a reason why we do these mitigation strategies,” Craig said. “It’s meant to keep people healthy and to slow the spread.” All of the schools have different challenges, he noted. “You have to construct a plan that reflects your community’s values and needs.”  “We hope we are getting everything done for our students and families that we can,” Maupin said.

Each of the schools’ leaders say their plans are working and they are grateful to their communities in and outside the school for making that happen. “It is such hard work. We take it one day at a time and pray regularly for God’s grace to keep everyone safe,” Vincent said.

“I am very hopeful that together, we will make this work. Catholic education was never more important than it is right now.”

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