Catholic schools in the Philadelphia region are preparing to welcome students for the fall term through a mix of in-person and virtual instruction to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on education.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Catholic Education released its plan for the 102 parish elementary and regional Catholic schools and four schools of special education this week, on the heels of a plan for the 17 archdiocesan high schools last week.
The plans were developed over several months by a task force and with input by administrators, teachers and parents, and consulting state and local health guidelines.
“Maintaining the health and safety of students, faculty, administrators and staff while providing a continued high-quality Catholic education were the principles guiding this work,” said an archdiocesan statement July 28.
A common feature of both plans is flexibility for families who wish to keep their children at home over concerns for their health and safety.
The plans also share similar approaches in their guidelines for social distancing of classroom desks as well as temperature and wellness checks of each student by parents before the children leave home each morning.
At the elementary schools, in-person learning will be the norm since it “allows time for students to develop spiritually, socially, emotionally, physically and academically based on their levels of growth and maturity,” according to the archdiocese.
Those families that choose to keep their children at home this fall can utilize the schools’ Learning Management System (LMS) that will provide materials, lessons, instruction, assessments, feedback and communication for students and teachers.
Schools will employ “cohorting,” in which “students remain with the same classmates throughout the day” and observe social distancing, use of face masks, enhanced cleaning of surfaces as well as “a modified attendance policy, situational virtual learning, and an enhanced partnership with parents,” said Andrew McLaughlin, archdiocesan secretary for elementary schools.
Archdiocesan high schools will offer in-person instruction and minimize the number of people in the school by splitting time among the student body: only half of the student population will be physically present in the school each day.
The high schools also will use the LMS and continue to use online video platforms such as Zoom. To aid that effort, cameras have been installed in classrooms so students can participate at home.
The schools of special education will adopt many of the elementary schools’ protocols, but with enhancements. Students will learn in person but their class will stay in place throughout the day as teachers rotate between the classrooms.
In addition to “sneeze shields” on each desk, classrooms will be equipped with a no-touch thermometer, hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes, face masks, face shields and gloves. Masks must be worn by everyone throughout the day.
At this time most public school districts have formalized plans featuring a similar mix of in-person and online learning for students even as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the region. The Philadelphia School District on July 28 reversed its intention to provide a hybrid education model and now will offer online instruction only.
Those plans and those of the archdiocese may change if forced to offer only online instruction as schools did last spring in an attempt to flatten the infection curve of the pandemic as recommended by state officials.
But archdiocesan education officials are planning for the new school year with what they describe as a “strong structural framework that seeks to provide the maximum educational experience for students.”
The plan allows for flexibility by individual schools as conditions of the pandemic change in their local area. For instance, an outbreak of COVID-19 in a particular county might necessitate new social restrictions that affect school operations in that county but not in another county of the archdiocese.
Also, the availability of bus service provided by local school districts for Catholic students may vary widely. That remains a fluid situation at this time.
The archdiocese, according to its statement, “has recognized the essential need to be nimble in the face of the ever-evolving pandemic landscape. Developments will be constantly evaluated and plans adjusted accordingly. We have the capacity and are prepared to provide a virtual learning environment to the greatest extent possible if necessary.”
Parents and guardians of Catholic school students may contact the archdiocesan Office for Catholic Education with questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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