“Back to school” has come to mean something quite different during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for elementary school children who generally benefit more from in-person rather than virtual learning.

Producer Gina Christian speaks with Andrew McLaughlin, superintendent for elementary schools of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, to discuss how this academic year will take shape in the more than 100 archdiocesan elementary schools.

(And here’s a hint: uniforms will be required, whether you’re at home or in the classroom.)

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Inside CatholicPhilly.com – “Back to school amid a pandemic”

Gina Christian: Welcome to Inside CatholicPhilly.com, where we explore the Catholic faith as it’s experienced in church and in everyday life. I’m your host, Gina Christian, here with our editor, Matt Gambino. And along with our guests, we discuss the Catholic take on everything from sacraments and Sunday Mass to social media and sports, based on CatholicPhilly.com’s award-winning news and commentary.

Thanks so much for spending a few moments with us here at CatholicPhilly.com. I’m your host, Gina Christian. Our editor, Matt Gambino, is on assignment, but he joins us in spirit.

Well, as we said in our last podcast, we’re gearing up for a school year like no other, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students and parents are reviewing those back-to-school guidelines as summer wraps up. To tell us more about that for the Catholic elementary schools here in the Philadelphia archdiocese, we’re speaking today with Andrew McLaughlin, Secretary for Elementary Education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Andrew, welcome.

Andrew McLaughlin: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Gina Christian: Great to have you here. I have a feeling that you and your team haven’t had much of a summer, given the amount of effort and energy that went into this plan. Is that right?

Andrew McLaughlin: That’s absolutely correct. And it’s been changing ever since we did it, too, so it’s-

Gina Christian: Well, as the situation has changed. That’s what’s made it the hardest part. It’s such a moving target in so many ways. But before we talk about your plan for the coming academic year I want to back up a bit, because when the pandemic began directly affecting this area back in March or so, you and your team moved pretty quickly to an alternate model.

Andrew McLaughlin: Correct.

Gina Christian: Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Andrew McLaughlin: Sure. That was based on… Actually, this time last year we started to put together what was called flexible learning. The idea was that if snow days hit, or emergencies, power went out in a building, you could switch to this flexible learning and provide students instruction through a virtual method, and you would get credit for it, so it wouldn’t count as a closed day. We had prepared then to do maybe three or four days for the year. So when we saw this was a potential situation, about a week or a couple weeks beforehand, we said, “You really need to start getting ready.” We said to our principals that this is a possibility. You need to start preparing to go for this for at least two weeks. And so when it happened, they were ready. They rolled right into that. Of course, it turned out to be a lot longer than two weeks.

Gina Christian: Absolutely. And who would ever have thought that snow days would have led to this kind of disaster preparedness? I well remember growing up with snow days, and they were something to anticipate. It’s certainly not this.

Gina Christian: Well, let’s look at the plan for the archdiocese and elementary schools. It’s formally titled Catholic Schools Onward, and it really has some interesting principles. The first thing I noticed is that this is not a mirror image of the plan for the secondary schools, because we’re talking about kids at a different stage of development and educational needs, right?

Andrew McLaughlin: Correct. And we also have a different setup within the buildings. Key to our plan is what we call cohorting. Cohorting is where you keep a group of children together, a small group of children together the whole day, and they do everything together, and they don’t mix with any other cohort. That’s very difficult to do at the same level that we’re doing it in the high schools. We have homerooms, small homerooms. A third-grade class can stay together and do everything together and it’s… It was easy for us to model that.

Andrew McLaughlin: Some school districts in the country, some Catholic school systems, that’s their only thing that they are doing to provide safety. What it does is, it keeps those children together. It limits the amount of spread you can have, because they’re interacting with the same number of people. And it also allows you to isolate it. So if we have a cohort, there’s a situation where a child is sick, we only need to go virtual with that cohort and can keep the rest of the school running.

Gina Christian: I would think, too, it dials down the anxiety for those kids, doesn’t it?

Andrew McLaughlin: It does. Sometimes you go into some of these homerooms and it’s like going into a cocoon. They have that special setup. The teacher knows them well. And it’s really what we’re doing, keep them in the cocoon for the whole day.

Gina Christian: It really reassures them. And as you said, it’s very efficient from a health perspective because it doesn’t shut down the rest of the school if there’s one case.

Andrew McLaughlin: Correct.

Gina Christian: It really limits that spread. In addition to the cohorting, of course we have the social distancing, the masks, the enhanced cleaning, but you mentioned a modified attendance policy. What’s that about?

Andrew McLaughlin: Well, one of the key factors we have, principles in our plan, is this partnership we have with the parents. We let them know, we’re going to be back to school, but we need you to monitor every day if the child is sick. And if they are sick, we have changed our attendance policy so they could attend a class virtually and we will count them present.

Andrew McLaughlin: We have set up two systems. One is a virtual learning where a child can individually stay at home and link into a camera and a computer in the classroom that is showing them what is going. They can participate through that. They can do activities. They can turn their work in with the rest of their class through this system we have established. Then if we need to go the whole cohort, we just roll that into doing it with everybody at one time. So we have two systems there. But to encourage parents to make sure that they don’t send children in sick, we will mark them either present virtually or present in person.

Gina Christian: That’s great, because if they do have symptoms that normally, in normal times, wouldn’t have waylaid them from being in school, would have been concerning for … to be cautious, but it wouldn’t have mandated them staying home, but now that’s not the case. You cannot be in school if you’ve got any kind of symptoms that could potentially be COVID. But they’re still not losing that school day.

Andrew McLaughlin: Correct. And additionally, it’s not just that if you’re sick there’s … Right now we have a lot of people that are uncomfortable, that are anxious about the situation, so a parent can opt … Some of our schools have as many as 50% of their parents are opting to virtually go into the classroom. I think they’re waiting to see how things go. Typically, I’d say the average is about 8%. They can decide that this is how they want to begin the school year. They would elect to do that rather than have to come in person. We kind of have a hybrid model. Both of them will be running every day.

Gina Christian: That’s great, so the parents do have that peace of mind and that flexibility. Now, does that tie in with what you’re calling the situational virtual learning?

Andrew McLaughlin: Correct. They can either elect to do it for their child, or if we have to we can do that for everybody.

Gina Christian: Fantastic.

Andrew McLaughlin: We have virtual learning in both situations.

Gina Christian: Talk a little bit more about the technology that you’re using in the elementary schools.

Andrew McLaughlin: Right. Well, it’s varied. We have 102 elementary schools. Each one is doing something a little different. It could be anything from something they may have had … One of the best ones that are in use are iPads. They can put an iPad in a little cradle, sit it on a tripod, and that will pick up the sound and the video, and then they would log in through a different system where they can then ask questions and submit work and get their work through a different system. Some schools are using dedicated cameras, and some are just using a computer to do it, so …

Gina Christian: But either way, it’s not a passive, sit at home and watch what’s going on in the classroom experience. There’s a way for them to participate in that.

Andrew McLaughlin: Correct. When we shut down last year, originally we were looking at for two weeks, but we used to meet weekly with our principals and we would get feedback from our parents. We surveyed them a couple times, and learned what they felt was working and not working.

One of the things that we learned was, they wanted that day to look as much like a regular school day as possible, so it wasn’t enough … Initially we might have just sent out a couple lessons and did a couple instructions on the video. By the end of it, we had people attending the whole school day. They would log on for religion class, do an activity, then log back on for math class, do an activity, log on for English language arts and do a writing activity, do a reading activity. It kind of morphed as we got into this.

So that’s what we’re looking to do this year as well. We expect the children to get in their uniforms. We want them to approach this as if it’s school. We have standards for behavior for when they’re virtually attending class, and we have systems for them to exchange information between the teacher and home.

Gina Christian: So if you’re home, you can’t be waving your fuzzy bunny slippers at your classmates.

Andrew McLaughlin: That’s exactly right. We —

Gina Christian: You better be in that uniform.

Andrew McLaughlin: Yes.

Gina Christian: I like it. That’s fair.

Andrew McLaughlin: Yeah.

Gina Christian: I’m glad to hear that, because I had 12 years of Catholic school and I wore my uniform. There’s no fuzzy bunny slippers in the Catholic school classroom.

Andrew McLaughlin: That’s exactly right. And we have the uniforms for a reason. It keeps everybody focused and it’s not distracting. We want the focus on the instruction and what we’re doing.

Gina Christian: And again, that dials down the anxiety. I think so many people, adults as well as children, in the midst of the pandemic felt the disorganization and the lack of structure was contributing to their sense of anxiety. That’s going to impair their ability to learn.

Andrew McLaughlin: We had a funny story. We had a parent contact us, so excited about the structure they provided, but they went, they finished their morning classes, and they went to have lunch, and the child said, “I can’t go back to class until you ring the bell,” so she had to get a bell.

Gina Christian: I love it.

Andrew McLaughlin: Another parent wrote us and said, “I have to say grace before we eat now.” The parents responded that they like the structure of this.

Gina Christian: I love it. And parents have become — and they always should be, but they have really become so central to their children’s education amidst this pandemic. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Andrew McLaughlin: I think there’s an appreciation for what the teachers do. I used to tell parent groups when I would meet them, I said, “Teaching’s kind of like running a birthday party but for 25 kids all day long. You have to keep control.” So I think they would see, trying to get the work, how to get that work out of them, keeping it organized, keeping them on task. I think they learn to appreciate that. And during this process, they would reach out to our teachers and say, “What do you advise for this?” Really in some ways, you didn’t think it would, but it kind of helped bolster that bond we have between home and school.

Gina Christian: Wonderful. And it also showed the tremendous amount of prep work that goes into teaching.

Andrew McLaughlin: Yeah.

Gina Christian: And as the daughter of a teacher, I know on many, many nights my father would be at our kitchen table going over lesson plans and notes. It’s not just showing up in the classroom. There’s a lot that goes on before that.

Andrew McLaughlin: You’re absolutely right. As a teacher, if I didn’t have my lesson prepared, I wouldn’t sleep well that night, just the anxiety of thinking about it. So there is. There’s so much effort that goes into it.

I was at an event, and it was a disorganized event, and a lot of people were showing up and there wasn’t seating for them. I went up to one of my principals and I said, “We need to have an elementary teacher running this. This wouldn’t be taking place.”

Gina Christian: That’s great. And it sounds that with the work that you folks have done that this year will go smoothly. Again, it’s a moving target, this pandemic and the implications of it, but you folks are responding very dynamically to it.

Now, for parents and students who want to get more information, where should they go online to find this out?

Andrew McLaughlin: Well, if they’re not familiar with what the school is in their area, we have the AOP Schools website. They can go in there and type in their ZIP code. They can find the schools. But if they want to know about what’s available at their school, to reach out to the principal there. Some of our schools have really been bombarded with the amount of new enrollment, because they want their children in a brick-and-mortar kind of setting, so you’d have to reach out to them to see if there’s openings.

Gina Christian: Sounds good. So really we could direct them to the aopcatholicschools.org website —

Andrew McLaughlin:


Gina Christian: And from there they could link to the various schools. Fantastic. Andrew McLaughlin, Secretary for Elementary Education for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, thank you so much for spending some time with us. And I agree, elementary school teachers should rule the world.

Andrew McLaughlin: Thank you for having me.

Gina Christian: Okay. God bless. Come back soon and let us know how it’s going. And as I said to Sister Maureen, I promise I’ll have my homework done.

So you’ve heard our thoughts. What about yours? Reach out to us and let us know. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter @CatholicPhilly, or visit us online at CatholicPhilly.com. Thanks so much to Matt Gambino, the editor of CatholicPhilly.com. I’m your host, Gina Christian. And until next time, may God bless and keep you.

Matt Gambino: Transforming lives: that’s what the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Philadelphia is all about. Called to service by our Catholic values, we work directly with our neighbors in need to help with the most basic necessities. Our lives are transformed, as are hopefully those we serve. Visit svdp-phila.info to see how you can join with us to help. That’s S-V-D-P dash P-H-I-L-A dot I-N-F-O.

Gina Christian: This podcast has been a production of CatholicPhilly.com. Music by Dustin Taylor Phillips. For more information, visit us online at CatholicPhilly.com.