Catholic schools pride themselves on student clubs and service, but now must get creative in offering options outside the classroom

DETROIT — Is it really back to school if there’s no Friday night football?

A staple of every fall semester going back decades, the fall of 2020 will be markedly different for Detroit-area Catholic schools, as extracurricular activities from sports, band, drama club and quiz bowl take on a new look to meet COVID-19 guidelines.

Parents send their children to Catholic schools for a solid, faith-filled education, but the lessons in the classroom are meant to be supplemented by lessons taught on the court, the student council, out in the community and on the theatrical stage.

With so much uncertainty, Catholic schools have adapted to keep extracurriculars as part of the education landscape.  

In order to keep student organizations going, University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy have created a “formation hour” in the class schedule for students to participate in the engineering club, yearbook, student council and other organizations in order to avoid after-school meetings.

University of Detroit Jesuit High School students participate in an outdoor community letter writing event June 19 in response to racial justice issues. Student clubs and activities will continue at the school this fall, with some events moved outdoors or online to promote social distancing. (Courtesy of University of Detroit Jesuit High School)

“Our plans this year are centered our two principles: health and the Jesuit mission,” Amy Ong, dean of student activities at the University of Detroit Jesuit, told Detroit Catholic. “To bring in that Jesuit experience, we’ve added the formation period to care for students who are involved in activities. A chance for them in the school day to be involved in the clubs they come to expect here.”

The pandemic has already created challenges for athletic teams. On Aug. 14, the Michigan High School Athletic Association decided to postpone the fall football schedule until the spring. While some sports, such as boys and girls cross country, girls golf and boys tennis, have continued hosting matches, others, including girls swimming, volleyball, field hockey and boys soccer, are only practicing while awaiting further instruction. 

Organizations such as student government and the “eSports” teams at U of D Jesuit made the transition to online meetings during the spring semester after classes became remote, but plan to return to in-person traditions with social spacing as the school year begins. 

“One of the things student senate handles is ‘Pledge Detroit,’ which for the last 10 years has been a day of service, with kids going out into the city,” Ong said. “Last year it was a walk-a-thon. This year, we don’t have a ton of organizations vying to welcome 200 students on site, so it will be a virtual walk-a-thon, with students raising $144 for our 144th year in Detroit.”

University of Detroit Jesuit students sit on the lawn outside the school June 19 during a community letter writing event. Circles drawn on the grass indicate to student groups how far to sit apart. (Courtesy of University of Detroit Jesuit High School)

Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills has expanded the deadline for its “Marian Acts of Christian Service,” a graduation requirement for every Marian student in which students write an essay on how they’ve served the community, said Jeff Sajack, assistant head of school.

For clubs and extracurriculars, Marian students are asked to meet in larger spaces or outside, Sajack said. 

“We have guidelines that limit classrooms to 15 desks, so for larger clubs, they have moved to spaces like the cafeteria or outside or even Zoom meetings,” Sajack said. “For students who’ve taken the option to participate in academic programming remotely, we are still offering our co-curriculars online, with meetings happening on Zoom.”

At Notre Dame Preparatory High School and Academy in Pontiac, the marching band now practices outdoors whenever possible. 

While disappointed the football season has been postponed, the band is marching on preparing for its MTV 80s Marching Band Show and potential outdoor stadium shows in the fall.

“We’ve been implementing every precaution possible to keep our band students safe,” said Joseph Martin, Notre Dame Prep band director. “Since July, band students have filled out a web-based COVID-19 screening form before every practice. Our drill this year is designed with fewer movements and the students are spaced further apart than last year’s show.”

Coaches, staff and faculty attend Mass in the bleachers at Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Pontiac. Many of Notre Dame Prep’s extra-curricular activities will be moved outdoors, if possible. (Courtesy of Notre Dame Preparatory)

Band students at Our Lady of Victory School in Northville also are practicing outside, and other clubs and activities that can be done safely will continue. 

“We still plan on doing art, computer lab, having our Spanish teacher come in and have physical education outside. Pretty much anything we can do outside, we’ll do outside,” principal Kate Szuba said. 

Some Our Lady of Victory traditions, such as its Victory Values Days, a schoolwide community service initiative, will be modified, but Szuba hopes the spring semester offers more opportunities. 

“It’s important to form the entire child, not only academically, but socially, so they can fully interact in the world,” Szuba said. “We can’t expect students to be cooped up in the classroom. We want to make this year as normal as possible.”

As “normal as possible” might be a stretch for students who are used to be involved in sports, however. Sajack said coaches at Marian have been taking the uncertainty surrounding athletics in stride. 

Members of the Marian High School swim team catch a beautiful sunrise during a socially distanced practice this summer. While some sports, such as cross country and golf, are continuing matches, swim teams are practicing while awaiting word from the MHSAA regarding fall meet schedules. (Courtesy of Marian High School)

“I’m always amazed with the dedication of our coaches; they are basically volunteers,” Sajack said. “They put in so many hours for such a small stipend, but their dedication hasn’t waned.”

For the student-athletes, student-musicians and student-performers across the Archdiocese of Detroit, the changes represent a speed bump, but educators aren’t dismissive of students’ needs. In a world where “essential and nonessential” have become common parlance, educators argue extra-curriculars are anything but extra; they're pivotal to forming the whole student — a mission each school has, pandemic or not.

“During orientation, I give the same spiel, saying academics are what bring kids into the building, but student activities are what keep them here,” Ong said. “If we are here to form the whole child, to prepare them in the world, we need sports, we need band, drama, choir. That’s what makes U of D, U of D. That’s what makes our schools stand out.”

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