by Moira Cullings
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — She’s been a teacher for 42 years.
But Vicki Gorman feels like it’s a whole new ballgame as she heads into the 2020-21 school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s kind of like ‘The Twilight Zone,’” she said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Gorman is a kindergarten teacher at St. Patrick School in Kansas City, Kansas. Over the summer, a team of teachers, led by principal Tim Conrad, worked to create a plan for safe in-person learning.
Although the situation regarding COVID-19 seems to be ever-changing, St. Patrick students are scheduled to start school in person on Sept. 8, and Conrad believes the school community is more than ready.
Common procedures for in-person learning
Like schools across the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, daily protocols at St. Patrick will look much different than during a normal school year.
“We’ve got a detailed plan for entering the building and exiting the building, [operations within] the classroom and overall general sanitizing procedures,” said Conrad.
The school is closely following guidelines recommended by the Kansas Department of Health, Kansas Department of Education, Wyandotte County Health Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You put all those together, and those are the guiding lights for us,” said Conrad.
When students arrive at the school, they will have their temperatures checked before they’re allowed to enter the building. If they have a fever, they will be sent home and the school will work with the local health department to figure out its next steps.
Inside the classroom, kindergarten through fourth grade classes are split in half to ensure plenty of space for social distancing.
“Students will be required to sanitize their hands right when they walk in a classroom,” said Conrad. “Then, they will have assigned seats that are six feet apart. They’ll be wearing masks during the school day in the building.”
Students and teachers will take frequent outdoor breaks, where they can take their masks off and put them in their pockets while still maintaining a safe distance from one another.
When students are away from their classrooms, the rooms will be sprayed using a sanitizing mister, which the parish church has also been using throughout the summer to keep parishioners safe.
Because of space limitations, St. Patrick fifth through eighth grade students will go to school in person every other day and learn from home on the days they aren’t in the classroom.
Every student has a Chromebook, and the middle school students will use Google Classroom and Zoom while learning from home.
The younger grades will also utilize Google Classroom, and teachers will plan lessons two weeks in advance, so they are prepared if they have to switch to remote learning on short notice.
When students leave for the day, their dismissal will be staggered by grade and they will leave out different doors to ensure distancing.
“To begin the first week of school, we feel like this goes well above and beyond the minimum requirements,” said Conrad. “That’s where we want to be as a school and as a parish, so we feel really good about it.
“We’re prepared to pivot and change it if we have to,” he added. “We’re just trying to make preparations [based on] what we know and what might come down the pike.”
The road ahead
Archdiocesan superintendent of schools Vince Cascone and the archdiocesan task force he formed are confident in the protocols schools have in place for in-person learning.
“Our principals have been working throughout the summer on things like measuring classrooms and making sure that they know how many students would be able to be in a classroom socially distancing in a safe way,” said Cascone.
“We have schools in 12 different counties,” he added. “We’re talking to those principals individually and making sure that they have been in contact with their local health department and county officials.”
The task force has focused in particular on three areas for reopening schools: health and safety; academics; and enrollment and finance.
“Archbishop [Joseph F.] Naumann has made it very clear his focus is on how we can support families,” said Cascone. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re really trying to make sure we’re having in-person learning.
“Of course, we want to keep [students] safe from COVID. But there are other health issues and mental health issues that come up when the students aren’t in school.”
Cascone hopes Catholic schools will continue to be a welcoming, faith-filled space for students of the archdiocese.
“[Schools are] great places where we love [our school parents’] children, we care about their children, we protect their children and keep them safe,” he said. “It’s much more than just a school — it really is a community.”
Cascone is grateful for the work school staff members have put into this summer to get ready for the year.
“They have really done an outstanding job preparing for the school year,” he said.
For teachers like Gorman, the efforts over the past few months are worth it when she thinks about seeing students in person again.
“We’re finding all kinds of new ways to do stuff [safely],” she said. “We’ve got a great group of teachers who are all willing to pitch in and help each other.
“We’re just doing what we’ve got to do.”