Teachers at St. Mary School, Middletown, are thinking outside the box – literally – to keep students healthy and engaged in their education. Courtesy photo
Teachers at St. Mary School, Middletown, are thinking outside the box – literally – to keep students healthy and engaged in their education. Courtesy photo
In a year like no other, presenting unforeseen challenges with COVID-19, Catholic schools in the Diocese are finding ways to persevere with the heroic help of teachers, school staff, and parish and school community support.

“Everything is going well, but I say to God, ‘We made it through another day,’” reflected Craig Palmer, principal of St. Mary School, Middletown. “I honor our teachers every chance I get. It’s a tough situation; they’re giving it their best.”

In Sacred Heart School, Mount Holly, principal Kathryn Jensen said, “I have seen the staff really come together and bond, both personally and professionally. The way they share ideas for their professional practice and support each other on every level is truly inspiring.”

All that was accomplished so far this year in Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, “was possible due to the diligent work of our Reopening Leadership Team, faculty, staff, students and their parents,” said vice principal Jillian Kelly. “It is very important they know they are appreciated and thanked.”

Adjusting Expectations

Trying to anticipate the needs of a school community in a pandemic is no mean feat, as all principals and teachers can attest. Naturally, some unexpected situations arise as a result.

Palmer gave the example of one of St. Mary’s teachers who has four of her own children in first grade and below. “Now you have her at her kitchen table trying to teach with her kids there,” he said. “I try to ask those who complain, ‘How is YOUR life going now?’ I never hired a single teacher who thought they would be teaching from home with their children.”

Jensen found that some surprising positives of the adjustments have been getting to know students and parents better.

“We’ve always said that Catholic schools are families, but this experience has really brought us all together on a new level,” she advocated. “This year has also cemented the partnership we have with parents … whether it’s picking up materials, helping to navigate a Google Meet, or even just communicating their child’s needs with the teacher because a student is learning at home, the parents have been instrumental in making this year a success for their child more than ever before.”

Jensen pointed out the challenges of staffing during COVID, with a constant rotation of staff members quarantining. “Finding coverage often means another teacher is losing a prep period or myself going into a classroom,” she said. “I think we are all happy to do this … but that always means that something else isn’t getting done. In general, everything takes longer, even the simplest of tasks.”

In St. Joseph School, Toms River, principal Madeline Kinloch said that one of their big staffing challenges includes finding substitutes. “Having them be able to teach the virtual portion is challenging.”

To help meet the need, professional development was given to four or five substitutes to learn Zoom and Google Classroom digital platforms. “There are times I’m subbing as a pre-K aide, and the vice principal is covering other classes,” she added.

Safety and Technology

Whether in person, fully remote or a hybrid model, schools have adapted to ensure all students can attend classes and learn safely. That has meant classroom modifications like distance between desks and desktop transparent shields, as well as upgrades in technology and personal hygiene products – all expenses above and beyond a normal operating budget.

“I think we all expected that we would be spending more money this year,” Jensen said. “Of course, we have increased the frequency in which desks and bathrooms are cleaned, but we also invested in a disinfecting ‘fogger’ that disinfects the air and everything the solution touches.”

Sacred Heart School also put air purifiers in each classroom to reduce viral transmission – an investment of over $450 for each classroom. “But they reduce the risk of transmission by 75 percent and that peace of mind was worth every penny,” Jensen said. “A lot of the cleaning was really given to us through the generosity of our parish.”

CARES Act funding helped the school fortify its infrastructure and rewire internet, as well as fill two Chromebook carts.

“We used our CARES Act funds to purchase thermal imaging thermometers,” said Kinloch. The thermometers are connected to the internet and positioned on a stand at the entrance to each of the school’s four buildings. The school also has hand sanitizing stations as well as static sprayers for the maintenance staff to clean classrooms efficiently.

“We didn’t expect, with all the accommodations, just how messy the classrooms become – with our kids in cohort class all day, eating in the classroom, it creates more of a mess – and how often the teachers would have to clean throughout the day,” Kinloch said.

“We also revamped our [technology] server and system, and purchased Chromebooks for students,” she continued, noting that an additional private donation helped offset the cost.

St. Mary’s School also used every bit of its CARES Act funding, as well as donations from school families. “We had all the bathrooms retrofitted with touchless sinks, flushers and soap dispensers,” Palmer explained, “and automatic hand sanitizers in all classrooms, as well as plastic shields on all the desks.”  Additional investment in PPE (personal protective equipment) included face masks for each student, and signage on floors and doors throughout the building to direct foot traffic.

Teaching the Whole Student

Catholic schools also have been particularly concerned with the spiritual and emotional well-being of their students, seeking to keep Catholic teaching and social health at the forefront.

St. Mary School has adapted in many ways spiritually, Palmer pointed out – praying the Bishop’s COVID prayer each morning, as well as attending Mass once a week, alternating which classes will attend in the large St. Mary Church and which will view from their computers. During Catholic Schools Week, they chose to focus on a different virtue of St. Joseph for each day: silence, prayer, courage, provide/protect and devotion.

“I truly believe that the mission of our school and the fact that we pray every day as a school and we continue to foster spiritual exercises, that God has his hand in our being able to stay open,” Palmer reflected. “I know it helps a lot with the mental anguish we see in young people. Having that unity and social aspect and praying together calms them.”

St. Joseph School has its school counselor go into each classroom once a week to discuss various topics on social emotional learning.

“As we got into school, we realized how much we needed a social-emotional learning curriculum,” Kinloch said. “We didn’t realize it until we got kids in the building, the extent of the students’ need for that.”

Kelly noted that in Donovan Catholic, a day of community engagement was created called WEdays – Wednesday Engagement – on designated Wednesdays every month.

St. Joseph School, which shares a campus with Donovan Catholic, has also set aside a monthly Wednesday Community Day with at least one activity related to Catholic identity, and Mass in the afternoon.

Overall, parents seem to be pleased with the Catholic school experience during COVID. “We sent out a letter of intent for next year ahead of open enrollment, and by and large they are all staying,” Palmer said.

Jensen credited Sacred Heart pastor, Father John P. Czahur, with setting the spiritual tone for the school, “reminding us that our faith prepares us for this. We are accustomed to handing our hardships over to Jesus … trusting that God can make all things new … We know that his love is at the end of every hardship and his embrace awaits us after this pandemic.”