For the kindergarten class at St. Peter and St. Paul School it wasn’t the kind of “first day of school” most have experienced.
Before they even got out of the car, they had their temperature taken; they had to wash their hands all day long and wear a face mask; their tiny desks were surrounded by plastic shields; and they were meeting their teacher, Mrs. Losciale, for real after six months of seeing her on a computer screen.
Still, for 11 Catholic elementary schools in San Bernardino County it was a joy to return to campus on Feb. 22, after more than 11 months of online learning. It’s especially important for the lower elementary grades, school leaders say.
“It’s the socialization,” St. Peter and St. Paul Principal Kelly Burt says. “Seeing someone on a screen isn’t the same as seeing them in person.”
The reopening came after COVID-19 infection rates sufficiently declined in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
“We have some exciting news!” read a Feb. 18 joint letter from Bishop Alberto Rojas and Catholic Schools Superintendent Dr. Sam Torres to school families.
The letter explained that San Bernardino County had seen its COVID-19 case rate fall below the threshold of 25 infections per 100,000 people. Per state regulations, the reopening applies to students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. A similar letter went out to families of Riverside County Catholic schools Feb. 25 after the county met the same benchmark. The Catholic schools there were required individually obtain approval from the Riverside County Department of Public Health in order to reopen. At press time, Sacred Heart School in Palm Desert had received approval and opened grades K-6 on March 1. St. Catherine of Alexandria School in Riverside was also approved for reopening and will begin in-person instruction March 8.
The Catholic high school campuses of the Diocese also remain closed because neither county has gone below the infection rate threshold of 7 per 100,000.
The Catholic schools of the Diocese have had reopening plans with specific health and safety protocols in place for months in anticipation of the opportunity reopen their campuses when statistical benchmarks were reached. “Our principals have been preparing for this day,” Bishop Rojas and Superintendent Torres state in their Feb. 18 letter. “The campuses have been prepared and the principals, faculty and staff are anxiously awaiting the reunion of students to campus.”
Reopening plans are tailored to each school but some common safety measures taken include,
• Morning temperature checks for all students, faculty and staff
• Mandatory hand sanitizing throughout the school day for all
• Mandatory wearing of face coverings for all students, faculty and staff
• Desk shields
• Social distancing of desks in the classroom
• Air purifiers in each classroom
• Students and teachers will remain in the same cohort throughout the day (no movement of classes)
Burt requires her school families to fill out a form daily stating their child is symptom free. On Feb. 22 she greeted each kindergarten student, taking their temperature before they exited their vehicle and then walking them to their “first day of school.”
To help younger students remember to keep social distance, Sacred Heart Academy in Redlands equipped them with Styrofoam swimming noodles that they can use to keep a four-foot separation from their classmates.
The Diocesan Office of Catholic Schools surveyed school families last fall and a majority indicated they were comfortable sending their children back on campus. Angela Williams, Principal of Sacred Heart Academy, agreed that on campus instruction is more effective for the development of students both academically and socially.
“Having them on campus is really valuable but only when it’s safe,” she said. “Part of learning is communicating and collaborating with each other and that’s hard to do on a Zoom class.”
Still, the San Bernardino County Catholic schools will continue to offer instruction through Catholic Online Synchronous Learning (COSL) for those families who are not comfortable with their children re-entering a public setting for school.