Catholic schools tread unfamiliar road in upcoming academic year

August 18, 2020

A teacher guides young students according to new pandemic guidelines using a toy chain at St. Helen Catholic School in Pearland. Catholic schools across the Archdiocese are also following suit to safely teach students and protect the health and safety of their communities. (photo courtesy of St. Helen Catholic School in Pearland)

HOUSTON — Over the past semester, the education landscape in the U.S. changed dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this new normal of virtual classrooms and remote learning, Catholic school administrators and educators worked with families to ensure that students and staff have a safe and evolving instructional environment conducive to the continuity of education, according to school officials.

Catholic educational philosophy espouses that families serve as the first educators in the life of a child. The partnership between parents and Catholic schools is vital to a student’s education.

With the support of the Archdiocese and the Catholic Schools Office (CSO), the Office of the Superintendent, and in accordance with Canon Law, the Archdiocesan network of schools is a site-based system. Each Catholic school campus is empowered to consult with their pastor and community in their decision-making as they prepared their re-opening plan.

“With all the change happening in our world right now, I think it is important that families know that our network of Catholic schools is here to support their students and create a safe and engaging learning environment,” said Debra Haney, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese. “Whether in person or remotely, our schools are committed to transforming learning and providing students with a foundation of Faith and as much of a sense of stability and normalcy as possible.”

The Archdiocesan network of Catholic schools is geographically spread out more than any public school district. The communities span 23 public school districts educating at least 18,000 students across the 10 counties in the Archdiocese.

While each campus is still preparing its re-opening plans, 90% of schools will offer some form of distance learning, school officials said. Re-opening plans also include a variety of instructional approaches, including virtual, in-person, or hybrid learning options.

Throughout the summer, principals and educational leadership talked with their school families, asking for feedback on proposed instructional approaches. Many communities have seen a groundswell of support for traditional instruction.

Suzanne Barto, principal of St. Laurence Catholic School in Sugar Land, said of her community’s families were overall “very supportive and are eager to return to school so that their children can experience some normalcy.”

“We surveyed our community twice this summer to determine how many wanted to send their children face-to-face or remote, and as late as July 31, we still had 85% wanting to be back in the school building,” she said.

Barto said that with the concerns surrounding the changing landscape of education during a pandemic, principals and educators remained determined to support parents to best serve their students’ needs.

“It is a very tough decision, and we understand how they are feeling,” she said. “Parents (at St. Laurence) have the option to change their decision for their children at the end of each quarter.”

Barto said her school and parish community are partnering together to create a meaningful and safe experience for their families,

“This is a team effort involving the parish and Knights of Columbus. We have purchased everything from individual desk barriers, spray foggers and cleaning supplies, to thermometers and individual Chromebooks,” she said. “The plan is to start small by phasing in our pre-Kindergarten through first-grade students first, and then working up to middle school. There is much to be done, but we want to be as safe as possible while maintaining the best possible learning environment for our students.”

Barto said a sense of community has always been a strong suit of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese, and the inherent teamwork of families and their schools was a blessing for which Barto was thankful at the onset of the academic year.

“Our mission statement includes the trinity of parent, child and educator, and there has never been a time where that is more necessary and appropriate,” she said. “We are definitely all in this together and are depending on each other to stay safe and supported.”

Across town in north Houston, John William Bates V, principal of Assumption Catholic School, spent the summer surveying his families, preparing the school’s re-opening plan and preparing the campus for the start of the year.

“From those surveys, we determined it was best to provide our families with two learning models, one remote and one on campus,” he said. “These options will be provided throughout this entire school year as we are uncertain how long the pandemic will impact our lives.”

In an effort to gauge openness for the two instructional types the campus would offer, Bates held two online town hall meetings to discuss Assumption’s re-opening options and address concerns and questions.
“So far, our families have been incredibly supportive and patient with the process,” he said. “They are committed to Catholic education for their children and embrace our shared mission to serve all children.”

But even in the midst of change, Bates said he believes Catholic schools will continue to serve as center points for the communities they serve.

“A new year always brings with it a sense of hope; which I believe educators provide to children in these challenging times,” he said. “The routine of school provides children with more than just a push for academic rigor; it provides children with an essential part of human growth, the sense of community.”

St. Helen Catholic School in Pearland began implementing its campus COVID-19 safety and protocol earlier in the summer to allow for their summer instruction program to take place on campus.

According to Dr. Phyliss Coleman, principal of St. Helen, this provided invaluable insight with her colleagues in a virtual principals summer workshop, and would assist them throughout the year.

“We learned that to help kids stay physically distanced, it was beneficial to give them a visual and physical manipulative. Pre-kindergarten students used knots on a colorful rope to navigate the campus and classroom. A child was assigned a color and told to hold on to the knot for their place,” Coleman said.

Coleman, like other Catholic school leaders, in retrofitted the campus to provide the safest and most protective learning environment for those students who chose to attend school in-person.

“All students will remain in learning pods — arranged by grade level — for the duration of the day,” she said. “We’ve divided the campus into quarters. Each pod has its own assigned bathroom and entry/exit. We also have a well-equipped ‘isolation room’ for anyone exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. The room is located next to an exit so that the person can easily move to a vehicle and vacate the building.”

Coleman said physical safety was important to the school, as well as the social and emotional well-being of the students.

“We realized for children to have a meaningful educational experience, it wasn’t feasible to keep them physically distanced at all times,” she said. “Our facility crew brainstormed uses for Plexiglas screens, and they built cubicles that were both student-friendly and safe for students to virtually participate in group and partner activities.”

CSO awards recognize leaders

The CSO also announced several awards. Coleman was selected for the Archdiocesan Leadership Award.

Haney said, “Dr. Coleman’s pastor stated that she has become an inspiration to their teachers, staff, parents and their entire parish as one who is dedicated not to just educating our young, but setting an example of dedication and service that is second to none.”

Father T.J. Dolce and Jessica Munscher, principal at St. Martha Catholic School in Kingwood, received the Sts. Peter and Paul Award, which honors a pastor and principal for their collaboration and teamwork in leading the school.

The Sally Landram Excellence in Education Award winner, Kristi Carter from Holy Rosary Catholic School in Rosenberg, will be the CSO’s nominee for the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops Education Department’s Teacher of the Year award.

The office also awarded the inaugural Catholic Impact Award, which was given to Father Vicente Agila and Principal Khanh Pham at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Galena Park for their extension of service to their community, Catholic school region, the Archdiocese and beyond.

Haney added that the CSO had four Catholic school leaders selected to participate in programs led by the National Catholic Education Association. Haney also said that Dr. Mazie McCoy, principal at Corpus Christi Catholic School, was participating in a new National Catholic School Mentor program with 12 principals from across the country focusing on enrollment studies.

In addition, Danielle Aleman of St. Anne Catholic School in Houston, and Adriana Gutierrez of St. Laurence Catholic School were selected to participate in The Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame and NCEA’s new partnership program called The Latino Educator and Administrator Development (LEAD) program.

The program aims to strengthen the Latino voice in both the classroom and school level nationally.