By Dan Russo
DUBUQUE — With Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds declaring a state of emergency March 17, Catholic elementary and high schools in the Archdiocese of Dubuque were closed until April 12. Educators made this decision to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), according to Superintendent of Schools Kim Hermsen.
Following guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other public health authorities, Catholic daycare centers will remain open as much as possible, depending on the status of staffing issues at each site. In a virtual gathering held March 17 using an online meeting program, Hermsen discussed all aspects of the closure with principals from around the archdiocese.
“We’re asking (schools and parishes) to call upon teachers and staff members to keep daycares open,” Hermsen told administrators.
This is being done for several reasons. For example, doing so will allow people with essential jobs to have childcare options and this will also mitigate the risks to grandparents or other older adults who would normally care for children, but are at greater risk for infection from the disease, according to officials.
“All parishes and all schools are expected to pay employees what their expected hours would be until April 13,” Hermsen explained to the administrators. “What will happen after April 13, we are unsure. We are planning.”
Catholic schools are following a directive given by Archbishop Michael Jackels to schools and parishes to keeping a “continuity of benefits until April 13.”
In the meantime, archdiocesan leaders are preparing for the possibility of closures beyond that date and will react as needed.
Catholic school teachers will be working from home, engaging students by phone and online or engaging in professional development. State officials said that schools “cannot require remote learning,” but Hermsen said it is being encouraged.
Some Catholic schools in the archdiocese are planning to provide printed materials or at home activity packets for students to pick up. Others are exploring virtual options. In the recent meeting, Hermsen answered a question in writing that came up at the meeting about how to handle work schedules for employees, including some who would still be physically present at schools.
“This is an unprecedented national emergency situation, and we all need to pull together for a common good,” Hermsen told principals and administrators. “If people are over 60, have an underlying health condition, have any symptoms themselves, have people in their household with symptoms, and/or are caretakers for others, they understandably should not come in to work. Any work that can be done from home, should be completed remotely.”
Iowa’s 10-person gathering ban does not apply to places of employment, but schools would expect to have only a “skeleton crew” for essential tasks, other than early childhood centers, according to the superintendent.
For the hot lunch programs that some low-income students rely on, there is a “grab and go” option being worked out. Hermsen explained that school employees could be redeployed if needed for essential tasks.
“For example, employees could be asked to be involved with working in the childcare centers, organizing instructional materials, cleaning, assisting with ‘Grab & Go’ Food Centers, etc. that they would feel comfortable doing,” she said.
For parents who may experience unemployment or be struggling for other reasons to pay tuition, Hermsen explained that financial aid, such as STO grants, will remain in place and schools are encouraged to work on tuition deferment arrangements and other options if necessary.
Catholic school administrators are holding regular meetings virtually, and the situation is fluid. Using new technology to reach students such as Zoom and Google Hangout was discussed, as was setting up Homework Helplines and other ideas. While students are out of school, a deep cleaning of school facilities was being planned.
Photo: A sign near the outside door of St. Mary School in Guttenberg in 2019.