By Katherine Long | Editor
Outside Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School in East Syracuse last week, things looked about the same as ever. A digital sign at the campus entrance greeted visitors. Vehicles came and went from the parking lot. The sports fields stood ready for athletes.
Inside the school’s front doors, however, the hand sanitizer dispensers and temperature check stations were the first clues this school year will be different.
“I have tried to stress to students and families, the school you left in March — it really has a different physical feel than when you were here last,” said acting principal Patrick Kinne.
Bishop Grimes (BG), along with schools across the diocese, closed its campus in mid-March amid the spread of the novel coronavirus. Teachers and students quickly moved to virtual and distance instruction via school-issued Chromebooks, which continued through the end of the school year.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Aug. 7 that schools across the state could open for the start of the new school year, as the COVID-19 infection rates in each region remained below 5%.
Staff in the 22 diocesan Catholic schools have spent weeks developing and executing plans to reopen. Each school’s plan incorporates guidance from the New York State Department of Health, the New York State Education Department, the New York State Catholic Conference, and the diocesan Catholic Schools Office. Reopening plans were submitted to the state’s departments of health and education. Links to all school plans can be found at thecatholicsun.com.
Surveys sent to Catholic school families indicated 68% to 98% of parents wanted their children to return to in-person instruction, Superintendent William Crist said in an August interview with Syracuse Catholic Television.
Returning to in-person instruction is possible because of “the very size of our schools and the communities that make them up,” he told the Sun in July. About 4,300 students, from pre-K 3 to grade 12, were enrolled across 18 elementary schools and four junior/senior high schools, and the average class size was 15 students, Crist said in the same interview.
On Sept. 14, students will return to BG classrooms for the first time in six months. BG, like all diocesan Catholic schools, will offer five-day, in-person instruction, as well as synchronous remote instruction via real-time videoconferencing for students who choose not to return to in-person instruction. About 85% of students will return to BG in person; about 15%, or roughly 40 students, will be online learners, according to Kinne.
A committee of BG faculty, staff, and parents developed its reopening plan. Starting with the guidance and recommendations from the state, the committee “just went through, step-by-step, every little facet that we could think of,” Kinne said.
The results include both broad protocols — temperatures taken at the front door, social distancing and hand hygiene enforced, students and staff wearing masks, regular disinfection of surfaces, one-way traffic on stairwells and in hallways — and small details.
The committee “got down into minutia,” considering elements such as student supply lists, Kinne said. Instead of asking students to have 3-ring binders, which take up lots of space in backpacks and lead to more locker visits, the school has asked students to get a one-subject notebook and folder for each class.
Even the process for assigning lockers was revamped. Rather than clustering students together in one area by grade level, students in the same grade are spread throughout the school; an empty locker stands between lockers in use. Class dismissal will be staggered as well, so that no more than three classes will be in the hallways at one time, Kinne explained.
Inside classrooms, desks are 6 feet apart, and about 17 desks can fit in most classrooms, Kinne said. To accommodate larger classes, the school added chairs and desks to the library. Individual desks have replaced long tables in the lunchroom. Gym classes will be held outside as long as weather permits. The school is also working with the Town of DeWitt to explore setting up a tent on the grounds, which would allow music ensembles to practice outside with the required 12-foot distancing, Kinne explained.
Creating and revising plans requires creativity, Kinne noted, and “flexibility is the name of the game.”
Barb Sugar, principal of Trinity Catholic School in Oswego, and families in the school community did some outside-the-box thinking when it came to planning for students’ hand hygiene.
The elementary school’s bathrooms have one sink each — how easily would students be able to wash their hands frequently throughout the day? Sugar found portable, foot-pump camping sinks online for about $150 each, and Trinity community members immediately stepped in with donations to purchase 10 sinks, Sugar explained. Now students “will be able to [wash their hands] in their classroom any time they need to instead of going into the bathroom,” she said.
Of Trinity’s K-6 students, 118 were set to return to in-person learning Sept. 9 and 13 planned to be online learners, Sugar said.
As at BG, Trinity will have protocols in place for temperature screenings, hand hygiene, social distancing, and cleaning. Students and staff will wear masks; masks may be removed when sitting at desks.
Trinity classrooms can fit 15 socially distanced student desks, but all but two of the grades have more than 15 students. To accommodate those larger groups, the technology lab, cafeteria, library, and gym will be used as classrooms, and kindergarten students have been divided into two classes.
Students will remain with their classmates the entire day, Sugar said, with special area teachers coming to classrooms. Gym class will be outside in good weather; alternate activities will be provided in-class when going outside is no longer possible.
This summer, Sugar held meetings for families, providing opportunities to review and discuss the reopening plan, accommodations, classroom settings, and curricula. Those meetings were well-received, with many good questions being asked and good feedback being offered, Sugar said.
To help address any anxieties students may have about the return to school, Sugar plans to have the school’s counselor visit each classroom and provide an opportunity to talk about any worries.
That is in addition to stressing to students, families, and staff the importance of adhering to the school’s protocols and understanding that “what you do outside of school hours is going to impact this school,” she noted.
Kinne has shared a similar message with the Grimes community, stressing “to families and everybody — if there’s a question [about a student’s health], play it safe. Stay home.”
As an administrator, spouse, and parent — his wife, Sarah, teaches Spanish at BG and their two children will be in 8th and 10th grades this year — Kinne has thought through the reopening plans from all angles. “To say that it’s been all-consuming would be an understatement,” he said.
Kinne tapped his kids for the student perspective. Their responses ranged from, “‘Oh yeah, that’d be really good’” to, “‘Dad, that’s a horrible idea,’” he laughed.
When it came to choosing in-person or online learning, the Kinnes “sat down and had a discussion with them — ‘What do you feel comfortable with? Do you want to go back to in-person or would you feel better doing virtual learning?’ I think they really gave it some thought, what would work best for them. They both made the decision to come back to in-person learning,” Kinne said.
Both Kinne and Sugar said that their students are looking forward to the school year starting, whether they’ve chosen in-person or distance learning. “That social aspect — it’s so important for everybody,” Kinne said.
Although this school year will be unlike any other, Kinne is reminding students, families, and faculty that some things don’t change.
“Maybe every little facet of our daily lives has changed, but… we have an unchanging God who is the same today, was yesterday, and will be tomorrow, and… He will not let us fall or not prosper,” he said. “In the midst of everything going on, we have that hope to hold onto because we are a people of hope.”
Visit thecatholicsun.com to see photos from Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School, and look for more stories from Catholic schools around the diocese in upcoming issues of the Sun.