BELLINGHAM – At Assumption School on a recent weekday, first-graders practiced their penmanship just as they would any school year. But this year they did it wearing face coverings and from behind makeshift cardboard-and-plastic dividers embellished with pictures of Dr. Seuss characters.
In the hallways at the Bellingham school, decals dot the floor illustrating what 6 feet apart looks like. Playground times are staggered so that only a single class is using the play equipment at any time.
The experience across the Archdiocese of Seattle has been similar as Catholic schools gradually return to in-person instruction. New technologies, reconfigured classrooms, juggling in-person and online learners simultaneously, and strict health protocols are just a few of the challenges schools face as they aim to welcome all students back to their campuses.
The Archdiocese of Seattle has more than 70 Catholic schools; all except the high schools have returned to some degree of in-person learning, prioritizing grades K–3.
“Every day that we’re open is a blessing and a gift,” said Assumption principal Dan Anderson. “We don’t know what tomorrow or next week will look like.”
While decisions about how and how fast to reopen schools are made with federal, state, county and archdiocesan guidance, ultimately they are community-level decisions, said Kristin Moore, director of marketing for the archdiocese’s Catholic schools office. Different building structures, different technologies, and differing advice from health departments in each of the seven counties where the archdiocese has schools mean there’s no uniform plan.
While there have been a few positive COVID cases in schools, there has been zero transmission — the virus was not passed to any other students or staff, Moore said. That is a testament to the safety measures in place, she said.
“Cohorting is key to keeping a lid on transmission,” Moore said, referring to the practice of keeping small groups of students together.
Students at Holy Rosary School in Edmonds wear facemasks and sit in desks that are spaced apart as part of COVID-19 safety protocols. Photo: Courtesy Holy Rosary School
Slow and cautious
The advice from the archdiocese about reopening was to be slow and cautious.
“We really took that to heart,” said Sue Venable, principal of Holy Rosary School in Edmonds. “We started back in June with a task force of seven staff members and seven parents who met weekly.”
The group discussed every detail of reopening — communications, supplies, new cleaning and disinfection protocols, HVAC upgrades, installing touchless faucets and more. Each detail was then cross-referenced with guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control, the Snohomish County Health Department and the archdiocese.
“Every single detail has been critical,” Venable said.
Then the school invited students back gradually, opening first to pre-K students, then to grades K–3 the following week, fourth- and fifth-graders a week later, and so on.
“We are proud of our school and their response,” said Shannon Schuler, whose two children, Mary and Peter, attend Holy Rosary. “What they pulled off technologically in a few short months has taken other schools years to accomplish,” she said.
The Schulers chose to begin the year remotely and were impressed with how teachers were committed to the technology and engaged with students learning at home. Her children have since returned to campus and “are experiencing the social-emotional benefits of being present in a school setting,” Schuler said. “They wake up every day thankful they get to go to school.”
Abrupt closures made an impression
In March, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, schools closed abruptly. The challenges of pivoting so quickly made an impression on Catholic educators.
“We decided right off the bat that if we had to, at any given moment, go to remote learning, we wanted it to be better [than it was] in the spring,” said Wayne Wenzel, principal of St. Joseph School in Issaquah. His school invested in swivel camera technology, iPads and Microsoft Teams software.
“We’re trying to replicate the day as much as possible” for remote learners, he explained.
At Queen of Angels School in Port Angeles, principal Thomas Cody McDonald considers how to maintain the school’s environment through “this chaos.”
“How do we carry over our Catholic identity, carry over our quality academics, carry over our community feel into the online platform?”
The school is located in rural Clallam County, where only about 250 cases of COVID-19 have been documented, so its experience has been different than that of Seattle-area schools. Three weeks into in-person learning, nearly 100 percent of students were on campus, with just three families participating remotely, the principal said.
Although school enrollment across the archdiocese has dropped from just over 20,000 students last year to about 19,500 this year, some schools have seen an increase in enrollment as nearby public schools remain closed to in-person learning, Moore said.
Cardboard-and-plastic dividers are part of the COVID-19 protective measures in a classroom at Assumption School in Bellingham. Photo: Courtesy Assumption School
75 is a magic number
At many of the archdiocese’s schools, about 10 percent of students are learning remotely, often because they live with an elderly family member or someone who is immune-compromised, according to Moore and the principals.
School administrators say they are acutely aware that any student may need to switch to at-home learning at any moment — perhaps due to suspected exposure to COVID-19 — and will need adequate resources to do so.
That happened in at least one school in the archdiocese, according to Moore. A younger student tested positive for COVID-19 and the entire class stayed home for the quarantine period prescribed by their county’s health department.
Anderson, the Assumption principal, agrees that cohorting is crucial. “It’s not about absolutely keeping the virus out, but how we handle it if we do get a case,” he said. “How do we contain it?”
Many school administrators say they speak every week with their county health departments. The number they are watching is 75 — that is, 75 new cases a week per 100,000 county residents, a number that would put a county in the state’s “high risk” category.
If cases spike above that number over a two-week period, it could necessitate remote learning, or at a minimum slowing down the pace of students returning to campus.
Some Catholic high schools in the archdiocese have returned to limited in-person instruction. For instance, Seton Catholic in Vancouver has divided its student body into four “saint groups” and invites two groups to campus each day, while the other two groups learn remotely.
Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien has brought a limited number of its 800 students onto campus for periodic check-ins, focusing first on students who need additional attention.
“While they can participate online, a fair number of them are not going to thrive in that environment,” said Matthew Mohs, Kennedy’s principal and president. Mohs’ own daughter is a freshman at Kennedy, so he is acutely aware that students are missing out on community building.
“I’m going to do everything possible to get kids back on campus sometime this school year,” Mohs said.
He and other high school principals have looked at potential timelines for returning to in-person learning, with the goal of getting each student on campus two days a week.
This is an unprecedented time for educators, said Holy Rosary’s Venable, who has spent 47 years in education. “In no time have teachers had to confront something like this,” she said.
McDonald, the Queen of Angeles principal, said teachers have “taken on a heroic task. They’ve sacrificed their prep periods, taken on extra roles with helping with regular cleaning of the school, adapting when we revise the policy.”
For his teachers, it’s been “a mix of some anxiety, a lot of work, and then relief when students were on campus again and we got to hear their voices,” McDonald added.
Although Queen of Angels has opened successfully, McDonald said, he keeps in mind its potential impact on the large retirement-age population in Clallam County that may be vulnerable to COVID.
“What’s important to us as Catholics is the common good,” said Moore, with the Catholic schools office. “We want to be part of the solution for COVID, so that we can all get back.”