There is a superhero who roams the halls of St. Gregory the Great Academy.
He doesn’t wear a cape or fly through the sky, say students who attend the Hamilton Square school, but he’s a hero, nonetheless.
“Our hero is our principal, Dr. Jason Briggs. … This has been a challenging year to be a kid, but Dr. Briggs has gone above and beyond to make our school safe,” third-graders Dylan Marsh and Sloane Woods said recently in a video created to promote the good work Dr. Briggs has done for the school.
Turns out, others think Dr. Briggs is a hero, too, which is why Dr. Briggs, a diehard Phillies fan, spent a memorable April 1 in Philadelphia being honored as a COVID-19 “Frontline Hero.”
A banner displaying his smiling face – along with the other 40 honorees – hung outside Citizens Bank Park during the team’s season-opener against Atlanta; Dr. Briggs and his counterparts paraded on to the field prior to the game and were introduced to an appreciative crowd.
“To be honest,” Dr. Briggs said of the day, “as wonderful as that was – and that was an amazing experience – I would take being in a space with my students and teachers in school even over that.”
The 41 “Frontline Heroes” were selected from roughly 500 nominations around the Delaware Valley after videos were submitted highlighting how these essential workers had stepped up to the plate during the pandemic.
That’s where the school video featuring Dylan and Sloane came into play, as Dr. Briggs has been working tirelessly since the start of the pandemic to keep students in school and provide some type of normalcy for his pupils and faculty.
The principal, however, insists his hero status should be a group recognition.
“It’s not me, it’s the whole team,” he said. “I may be the person on the banner, but it’s a full St. Gregory effort.” But Dr. Briggs was the point man, and his staff wanted people to know.
Thus, when the Phillies did a region-wide search for those who stood out during the COVID-19 crisis, DiAnne Trail, the school’s technology coordinator, and teachers Dana Hoover and Karen Stives nominated Dr. Briggs.
“We are so proud of our principal and all of the work that he has done since the pandemic started,” Trail said. “His dedication to keeping us safe is paramount.”
And he did it in an upbeat manner.
“His positive ‘can do’ attitude and clever sense of humor kept many parents afloat,” said Liz Pelikan, the school’s director of communications. “He must've been working night and day to figure out how to get the kids in school safely. He truly understands the importance of having the kids there in person without compromising their safety. His communication of everything is very thorough and transparent, which many parents appreciate.”
When the pandemic shutdown occurred last March, Dr. Briggs said he was saddened to lean students would not be able to finish the school year in person due to safety concerns. So, he set his sights on the 2020-21 school campaign.
“That’s when I started planning how we would get back in [to the classroom] after the summer,” Dr. Briggs said, explaining that being away from school has not only academic challenges but social and emotional ones, too. “One of the things that gets overlooked is that you’re just kind of ripped out of your routine and ripped away from teachers. Aside from parents, teachers are really some of the most important adults in [a student’s] life.
“There was a sense of loss and mourning that really had to take place through March and April last year. Having experienced that, I decided … we’re coming back somehow,” he said.
Thus, Dr. Briggs set out to make the halls of St. Gregory the Great Academy breathe safely again. But first, he personally delivered diplomas to the homes of every graduating eighth-grader last spring.
With the help of St. Gregory the Great Parish pastor, Father Michael Hall, Dr. Briggs then turned his attention to the returnees, and even forfeited a week with his family on Long Beach Island to make sure everything was safe.
He started by compiling an “Amazon wish list” that was sent out to families and received a huge response. “Everything I needed to make it work, people would say, ‘If this is what you’re going to do, we’re going to help with that.’”
School started the last week in August – a week early – in order to go over new procedures since the entire system “was like starting from scratch.”
Tents were rented to establish outside gathering areas to reduce pandemic exposure risk, and reconstruction was done inside the school to provide social distancing.
Figuring the busiest times of the day were arrival, dismissal, lunch, recess and break time, that’s when the outside areas were utilized.
Students would go inside for two classes at a time before going back out. The inside space was utilized in 90-minute increments, and some teachers even held class outside.
Due to colder weather, the schedule was changed from Thanksgiving through Easter. School adjourned at 12:50 p.m. rather than 2:30 p.m., which took lunch out of the equation. Industrial size ventilation fans were put in the hallways to constantly move air throughout the building and exhaust it outside. A newly installed audio system allowed upbeat music to play throughout the hallways between classes.
If the weather was agreeable, breaks would be taken outside. If not, students would spread throughout the school and windows would be open.
Father Hall celebrated outdoor Masses when the weather was nice, or an indoor Mass that was livestreamed throughout the school. Stations of the Cross would feature one grade lined in a hallway holding up pictures and another grade in a hallway doing readings.
“We’d broadcast that to all the classrooms, and Facebooked it live so the kids at home could see it,” Dr. Briggs explained.
‘People of Hope’
Countless other procedures were also put in place to ensure safety, which Dr. Briggs tirelessly promoted through social media. He also posted heartfelt Facebook videos addressing the students, and used the same platform to read “A Night Before Christmas” and had everyone join a Google Meet for Christmas Carols.
All the planning has worked to provide some semblance of normalcy and unity for the St. Greg’s students and faculty.
“My belief is always that our chief purpose as a Catholic school is to partner with parents to get their kids to heaven,” Dr. Briggs said. “That’s why we exist, that’s what sets Catholic schools apart from every other institution, private or public. That needs to continue. We can’t abandon that. It has to keep happening.”
Through the entire process, faith played a huge part.
“As Christians and Catholics, we’re people of hope,” Dr. Briggs said. “With the idea of being in a pandemic and all the things that have not gone people’s way, we need to remain hopeful people. We need to make sure we continue to operate in our faith.”