New frontiers in Catholic education: schools of archdiocese plan for the return to learning

Precautions, creative measures put in place due to COVID-19

By Daniel Charland

Witness Correspondent

DUBUQUE — As summer vacation comes to a close, questions regarding how schools will reopen in the fall become more relevant. The Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Dubuque are no different in having to face the reality of being prepared to deal with the possibility of coronavirus outbreaks during the cooler weather. Because of this, they have many regulations to follow and precautions to take in order to open their doors. According to Kim Hermsen, Superintendent of Catholic Schools, the K-12  schools of the archdiocese are planning on resuming normal in-person classes, with planned contingencies for individual students who could either be potential spreaders or particularly vulnerable.

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“All schools are working to be in person and offer a remote instruction option if at all possible,” said Hermsen. “This means students would attend in person and those students who are ill, have to quarantine, have underlying medical conditions, live with someone with underlying medical conditions, or whose parents don’t yet feel comfortable with them returning to in person instruction would join school in a virtual manner. Schools had to submit ‘Return to Learn’ plans to the Iowa Department of Education by July 1 and now each site is working closely with its county health department on specific reopening guidance and mitigation strategies.”

The relationship schools have with local health departments is a driving factor in the choices school systems are making. This is because some regions may have higher risks than others and conditions may change as the pandemic unfolds.

Hermsen continued, “Right now our schools are working on firming up guidance with their local health department.  We have 46 Catholic schools within 18 different counties — and each county is providing somewhat different guidance. Our schools want to be open if at all possible but we know that will be dependent upon virus activity in specific areas and   Our schools’ ability to utilize very effective COVID mitigation strategies (ie: social distancing, minimize mixing groups of students, hand washing, etc.)”

Students Reflect on Return

The main entrance of Resurrection Elementary School, part of the Holy Family School System in Dubuque is shown in April after in person classes were stopped due to the pandemic. At that point, many Catholic school students were continuing education at home. The windows are decorated and include a hopeful message. (Witness Photo by Dan Russo)

The possibility of in-person classes comes as a welcome change to many students and families. One such student is Teresa Braun, who will be a new freshman at Beckman Catholic High School in Dyersville this fall. While not looking forward to some of the pandemic changes, Teresa is glad for the opportunity to resume the social life she had before the shutdowns started.

“I’m happy that school will be reopening and that they’re going to try to make the year as normal as possible with all the restrictions,” said Braun. “It’s been kind of boring being stuck at home and I’ve really missed my friends, so it’ll be good to see them every day again, and just to socialize again. Obviously, it will be weird with all the new protocols, especially wearing masks some of the day, and there’s going to be a lot of hand sanitizer going around! I just hope we’ll have all the usual events we’d normally have in the fall, and that the virus doesn’t spike up so badly that we’d have to do work from home in the winter months.”

Teresa’s brother, Jeremy Braun, will be a seventh grader at Seton Catholic School in Peosta. He also indicated his preference for going to school over using online methods.

“I am glad that school is opening because it will be great to see all of my friends and getting back to a schedule,” said Jeremy. “We will have to wear masks everyday and use a lot of hand sanitizer and I hope that it will keep COVID-19 down in schools so we will not have to go back to using computers and Zoom. I’m happy that they will keep school somewhat normal and just like any other school year except for some precautions. Overall I am glad that we will have school.”

Teresa and Jeremy’s parents, Kevin and Maria Braun, expressed both optimism and concern.

“We are concerned about what the Covid metrics will do once school starts,” said the parents in a statement to The Witness. “The risks appear to be quite low for children less than 18 years of age so we support getting the kids back into a better learning environment. We will continue to monitor the situation and pray for an end soon to this pandemic.”

Thinking ‘Outside’ the Box

The Holy Family School system in Cedar Rapids is among local Catholic educational institutions implementing creative measures this year to serve students in light of the pandemic. Part of their plan for students’ return is to offer classes outside, when the weather permits it.

“We figured a 35 by 35 foot spot would be a little larger than any of our classrooms and that would hold 25 kids distanced and so all of our outdoor spaces are bigger than that, so we can space out more outside than inside,” explained Zachary Zeckser, Holy Family’s chief administrator and principal of LaSalle Middle School. “As we understand it, COVID-19 doesn’t travel as well outdoors as it does indoors.”

To make outdoor learning possible, the school plans to provide clip boards with microphones to each student. Teachers would wear headsets and have speakers that would amplify their voices as needed.

Students would still start each class indoors, with teachers having the option to use outdoor space as they see fit, according to Zeckser. Donors have been providing beach towels or blankets that can be spread out on the grass during outdoor learning.

The outdoor learning spaces are only one of many other safety measures being put in place at Holy Family. Others include keeping groups of kids in the same cohorts to minimize exposure to other groups, screening, additional sanitation and disinfection (by hiring extra staff) eating outdoors, purchasing desktop screens, gifting each student and employee with two Holy Family masks, gifting each student and employee with a screen, spacing, offering an online option, and more.

Students are scheduled to return for two half days Aug. 20-21 to give staff the time to make any needed adjustments. The first full day is slated for Aug. 24.

“Our staff is amazing, and really taking this in stride in order to serve and lead the kids that they love so much,” Zeckser said. “Dark times sometimes show where the Gospel is really shining, and Holy Family staff is shining brightly right now.”

 Hybrid Form of Higher Ed

For the three Catholic colleges in the archdiocese, Loras College and Clark University in Dubuque, and Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, the challenge of preventing the spread of germs on a residential campus has required them to form special COVID-19 academic plans. These plans are then posted on their websites and sent to students and staff to keep them updated.

All three colleges have set out similar strategies of dividing classes into hybrids of online and in-person instruction. For example, Mount Mercy University has planned out its classes in two categories, purely online, and hybrid. The majority of classes will be hybrid, with students spending their in-person class time sitting six feet apart and wearing face coverings, and faculty doing the same. The face to face learning is being implemented because it is regarded as the best method to build a learning community and the easiest way for students and teachers to have conversations about the subject matter. Each online portion of the class will be formed and determined by the individual professor. The online learning is in place so that the university can easily pivot to being completely online if the pandemic develops to a point where that is needed.

This division of classes into in-person and online is also being implemented by Loras and Clark. According to Loras President James Collins in a letter to new and returning students,

“Providing students with a greater proportion of course content online allows more time for in-class discussion and engagement with the instructor on the course material that students typically find most challenging. Students living on campus or commuting students will join the class in-person on some days and remotely on others for synchronous instruction that occurs during the scheduled class time. Students who are taking classes completely online will also join these synchronous instructional sessions.”

The colleges are also making changes to their academic calendars, with previous vacation days like Labor Day Monday and Fall Break becoming class days, and the last week of classes, as well as final exams, final papers and projects, being conducted remotely after returning home. Additionally, the Spring Semester at Loras will start sooner in the year than normal—January 11th – and the previously-titled “J-Term” classes in January being changed to “May-Term”, being held after the Spring Semester ends.

All three colleges are implementing policies to regulate campus life and reduced any contact that could possibly transmit germs. These include the now-standard precautions of wearing face masks in indoor public spaces and keeping people six feet apart, as well as thoroughly washing of hands and encouraging students to constantly monitor themselves for any symptoms. College sports will also continue, but in a limited fashion, as most sports will have their conference seasons cut in half.

In contrast to the quickly-crafted class changes that had to be improvised during the last spring semester, it appears that the local Catholic schools are now prepared to best handle both best and worst-case scenarios that the pandemic might bring.

Witness Editor Dan Russo contributed to this article.

Cover image: A statue of Bishop Mathias Loras overlooks Loras College’s campus in Dubuque. He had a pivotal role in creating the first Catholic schools in the region in the nineteenth century (Photo by Dan Russo/Witness Editor)