Teacher Mary Heintz leads her class of first-graders at Notre Dame Elementary School in Utica Sept. 14. (Photo courtesy Sondra Nassar)


By Katherine Long | Editor

Last March, all 22 of the diocese’s Catholic schools, like their public counterparts, closed to in-person learning as Central New York communities began canceling events and closing businesses to avoid spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.

Amid stay-at-home orders and social distancing directives, school leaders faced a twofold challenge, Diocesan Superintendent William Crist recalled.

“We needed to understand how we were going to solve this problem of one, continuing to provide education to our students… and two, continuing to be a sense of community, because that’s who we are — each of our schools is a gathering of faith and community together,” he said.

The diocese operates 22 schools across seven counties, with an enrollment of some 4,300 students pre-K to grade 12 and 429 employees. Those schools quickly launched Zoom classes and distance learning packets, and teachers and students adapted as closures were ultimately extended through the end of the school year.

“It was always necessary to change and pivot and redirect, because different information was coming in from other organizations, health departments, CDC, and others,” Crist said. “It was a constant state of flux, a constant state of unknowns, that, although perplexing — that was the world we were living in.”

The school year ended without many of the traditions and rites of passage that generations of students have cherished. Perhaps most striking were seniors walking across graduation stages set up in school parking lots.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Aug. 7 all school districts in the state could open for the start of the new school year. The diocese’s 18 elementary schools and four junior/senior high schools responded with individual plans to provide in-person, full-day instruction five days a week, alongside remote instruction for students who chose not to return to in-person instruction.

The summer break was “two intensive months of our principals and our teachers and our parents and communities coming back together and saying, ‘What do we want? What’s it going to look like? And how are we going to implement it?’” Crist said.

He credits all members of the Catholic school communities for a successful return to in-person instruction in September.

“My hat’s off to our teachers and principals, our parents for entrusting their children to us, and to the children for being rule followers and doing what they needed to do to make sure that we could continue to do what we did,” Crist said.

“The greatest success of what’s happened here is to recognize that we have amazing people in our schools. Our principals, our teachers never let down. They never said no. They said, ‘How can we make it? How can we get there?’ That piece was just incredibly uplifting and fulfilling, to know that nobody gave up.”

Some schools saw upticks in enrollment because of the availability of in-person instruction, Crist said, and “re-enrollments for 2021-22 are very positive.”

School leaders are already looking ahead to the coming school year.

“As we’re continuing to vaccinate people, as we continue to understand the infection and the virus a little better, we’re planning to come back to school, as we did this year, five days a week, in person,” Crist said.

With some counties providing new guidance on social distancing requirements, he sees the possibility “that our ability to interact with students and staff is going to be a little bit more close than it has been for this year, for sure.”

Schools will continue to offer “some level of remote instruction,” Crist said, while noting that the number of families choosing the remote option has “declined greatly.”

Crist zeroed in on what anchored staff and students over the past year: “People remained faithful in who they were and what they were trying to do. I think our faith as a Catholic community helped us to do that.”

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