Students will return to in-person classes if it’s safe to do so, but distance learning plans also being prepared should virus spike again

DETROIT — As long as Michigan’s coronavirus caseload remains manageable, Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit will return to in-person classes this fall — but with a host of new health and safety protocols.

On July 17, a 13-member task force headed by Vic Michaels, assistant superintendent of student services and athletics for the Archdiocese of Detroit, released a “COVID-19 preparedness plan” to allow Catholic grade schools and high schools in the archdiocese to reintegrate classroom learning if it’s safe to do so — even as distance-learning contingencies are being developed in the event the virus spikes again.

From personal hygiene, social distancing and face coverings for students and staff to regular screening and testing of those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, the research-based protocols are designed to keep everyone safe while allowing for as much flexibility as possible, said Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

“It must be acknowledged that the pandemic is not over and that its course remains largely unpredictable,” Kijewski said in a letter to parents. “With the positive impact that mitigation efforts have had on our statewide and metropolitan area over the last several months, we hope that these trends continue so we may welcome students back to our schools this fall.”

A student stops at her locker at St. Lawrence School in Utica. All students would be required to wear masks in common areas and while entering and exiting the school, but students younger than sixth grade could remove their masks in classrooms. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Whether Detroit-area Catholic schools return to in-person classes will depend on southeast Michigan’s success in battling back the coronavirus. Currently, the region is in Phase 4 of the state’s MI Safe Start Plan, which would allow for in-person learning while minimizing the risk of a worsening outbreak.

“The governor has reiterated that they are looking at case numbers being stable and not rising, death rates being stable and a sufficient number of hospital beds available” to keep the region in Phase 4, said Michaels, who also sits on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Return to School Advisory Council. Public schools also are planning a return to in-person classes.

Michaels said if the region regresses to Phase 3 before the fall — which could happen if caseloads or death rates rise again — schools would be asked to implement distance learning plans instead.

Separate plans will be released if the region improves to either Phase 5 or 6, which would loosen some requirements, Michaels said.

Students’ safety ‘of the utmost concern’

If, as expected, in-person classes do return, students and staff can expect a different landscape when the first bell of fall rings.

Gabriela Bala, principal at St. Mary School in Royal Oak, said the K-8 school is adding extra handwashing stations and touchless faucets, changing desk configurations and marking floors to encourage social distancing.

Students, teachers and staff at all Catholic schools will be required to wear a mask when entering the building or in common areas, while other rules limit the number of visitors and provide clear protocols for testing, screening and responding should a student or staff member exhibit COVID-19 symptoms.

Students at John Paul II School in Lincoln Park walk the hallways in this file photo. Students and staff can expect significant changes if schools return to in-person learning this fall, including socially distanced classrooms, mask requirements and extra hand sanitizing stations. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

“The safety of students, staff and families is of the utmost concern to us,” said Bala, a member of the return-to-school task force, which included leaders from a half-dozen local Catholic schools, as well as archdiocesan representatives, medical professionals, parents, a school pastor and a local judge. 

The archdiocese’s protocols mirror many of the state’s recommendations, but still leave room for individual schools to implement additional measures to ensure students’ safety, such as daily temperature checks.

High schools will be required to disinfect classrooms between each period, and assemblies that bring together multiple classrooms won’t be allowed. Students may eat meals in the cafeteria if six feet of distance can be observed, and if not, lunch hours will be staggered.

“Every school is working so very hard to create a safe environment for their students,” Bala said. “As much as I think we would all love to wave a magic wand and return to what we had before, we don’t know what our reality will be once we come back to school.”

Younger students in kindergarten through fifth grade won’t be required to keep their masks on in the classroom, both given the difficulty of enforcing such a requirement and because it might actually be harmful for small children.

Dr. Salvatore Ventimiglia, a Shelby Township-based pediatrician who served on the task force, said younger children are more likely to touch their face or play with their masks, making it risky to require them to wear one. 

“Fortunately, if there is a ‘fortunately’ to this, it seems the youngest children — particularly 10 years and younger — are least able to pass the illness along, and they tend to have the least symptoms,” said Dr. Ventimiglia, whose own three children attend Holy Family Regional School in Rochester. “But also, they’re the ones who are most sensitive to facial expressions and visual cues in their learning.”

Students at St. Michael Elementary School in Monroe listen as their teacher reads in this 2019 file photo. Because younger students are more likely to touch their face or play with masks, requiring them to wear one could present a hazard, experts like Dr. Salvatore Ventimiglia said. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Dr. Ventimiglia, who has practiced for 20 years, said the new protocols were developed with input from the medical community using the most recent research available.

“I am cautiously optimistic that what we’re doing will provide the safest environment for our students and staff,” Dr. Ventimiglia said. “My children are going to be following these same recommendations in their Catholic school as well.”

Currently, the Catholic High School League is planning to go forward with the fall sports season with safety protocols in place, but the league is taking a wait-and-see approach, Michaels said. The season is scheduled to start Aug. 10.

“If we get closer to that date and we don’t feel it’s safe to do so, we’ll delay the start of fall sports,” said Michaels, who also serves as the CHSL’s executive director. “If we think it’s safe to conduct certain sports like cross country, tennis or golf, we might be able play those sports while delaying the start of sports like football, volleyball or soccer — sports that have a greater risk of not social distancing properly.”

Schools prepared for distance learning — if necessary 

On the chance coronavirus cases do spike again in Michigan, a separate 14-member committee has developed contingency plans and recommendations for schools to return to distance learning, said May Bluestein, Ph.D., assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment for the archdiocese.

Bluestein said the new recommendations were developed after taking feedback from a survey of 3,000 Catholic school parents conducted at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

“When we were in the crisis of the pandemic, we knew we had to plan for the future,” said Bluestein, who helped lead a committee of principals, teachers and educators in developing the plans. “We knew there was a chance we would have to return to some form of distance learning, and we wanted to be prepared.”

Academy of the Sacred Heart third-grade student Santino Visocchi works with his classmates on a shared Google Doc at his in-home school station. (Courtesy of the Academy of the Sacred Heart)

Bluestein said the parent survey was “truly crucial” in developing the guidelines, and the committee also took input from teachers, principals and administrators about what worked and didn’t work this spring.

As both a parent herself and an educator, Bluestein gave Catholic schools in the archdiocese an “A” for their response to the pandemic, and said the survey of parents revealed areas where schools both exceeded expectations and areas where further improvements could be made.

“Overall, there was a lot of positive feedback,” Bluestein said. “That was reassuring, but there’s still work to be done. “I’m so grateful for the many hands and helpful minds who came together on this.”

The new guidelines address areas such as the instructional schedule, how to integrate Catholic identity into an online curriculum, assisting students with special needs, attendance policies, grading and technology when teachers and students are remote.

While the committee discussed a possible “hybrid” model of both in-person and online education, it ultimately wasn’t feasible given child care concerns, Bluestein said, especially because many teachers and educators are parents themselves.

However, in the event that in-person classes are offered and a family doesn’t feel safe sending their child to school, parents can work with individual schools to accommodate particular areas of concern.

Bala, the principal at St. Mary, said the Royal Oak school has already begun having those discussions, recognizing that situations might arise where an individual child might need to learn from home.

While accommodating such situations will be a “school to school decision,” Bala said resources do exist to make online learning a possibility for students who can’t attend school in person, whether they are exhibiting symptoms or fall into a high-risk category.

“We don’t want to overwhelm the teachers with having to do two jobs, face to face and online, but there are simple things we can do to continue education for our students,” Bala said. “We’ve gotten pretty good at Zoom and Google Classroom, so maybe we can have an iPad on a tripod and allow students to Zoom in from home and deliver assignments that can be completed electronically. It’s something we have to explore.”

Whether classes end up online or in person this fall, individual schools and the archdiocese are taking a return to school seriously and using the best research available, Bala said.

“We are planning, preparing and praying very hard for an end to this and for safety for all of our families, because we’re all one big family,” Bala said.

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