Catholic schools can open with distancing

Nancy Sutherland teaches English language arts on July 9 at the summer school program at St. Mary’s School in Lee. Practicing social distance in the classroom now is helping the school to prepare to reopen this fall for in-person classes.

When the Springfield Diocese announced plans for in-person classes this fall, St. Stanislaus Kostka School Principal Joseph "Joe" Rogge said, "We're ready."

"That doesn't mean we don't have a lot of work to do between now and September, but we're ready to have our students back," he said.

Reconfiguring classrooms for social distancing, revamping curriculum and developing backup plans for hybrid instruction and remote learning are among the tasks at hand.

In late June, members of the diocese's school leadership team visited each school in the parochial system, tape measures and notebooks in hand, to test feasibility of social distancing. On July 6, in a news release detailing the diocese's school-reopening plan, Superintendent Daniel Baillargeon said there is enough space to accommodate current enrollment and a few new students.

Rogge said a recent survey of the Adams school's families indicated that about 90 percent of them want their kids back in school.

When St. Mary's School in Lee posted the reopening plan on Facebook, it received 28 "likes," five "shares" and three comments: "God bless!" "Hallelujah" and "Praise Jesus!!"

According to Baillargeon, there were "a little over 2,500" children enrolled this spring in the Springfield Diocese schools network, which includes 12 pre-K-8 schools, a high school, and an independently operated Catholic early childhood center and high school.

The diocese's schools in the Berkshires include St. Mary's, St. Stan's and St. Agnes Academy in Dalton. St. Mary's had 100 students enrolled in prekindergarten through eighth grade this spring. There were 88 students enrolled at St. Stan's and 150 students at St. Agnes, across the same grades.

Right fit

These smaller enrollments will allow schools to better achieve their reopening goals, local Catholic school principals said.

While Catholic schools have autonomy, some aspects of reopening are contingent on state rules and the plans of public schools.

All three schools share busing, vacation and holiday calendars with their local public school district. Public schools have until July 31 to submit reopening plans to the state, so, bus schedules are yet to be determined.

Catholic schools will establish a "COVID room," separate from the nurse's office, to be used by a student or staff member who develops symptoms and needs to be isolated.

While work remains, getting the green light to reopen "was great, and that the decision also came from us," St. Mary's Principal Jen Masten said. "Based on all of our situations, we feel it's feasible. For us at St. Mary's, it's such a huge campus. Our classrooms are spacious and our numbers are such that we can keep a distance at 6 feet."

"Our teachers are so excited," she said. "They worked their butts off with remote learning. When we brought up the idea of reopening, they're like, 'Whatever it takes.'"

St. Mary's already is putting new protocols into practice, with a summer learning program that runs a couple of days a week. Students come into a classroom in groups of five, wearing cloth masks and sitting at desks or tables 6 feet apart.

After explaining safety protocols, like hand-washing and social distancing, Masten said, parents are happy to send their kids back to a classic learning environment.

A 'safe' space

In planning for a larger return this fall, Masten said it is important that students are prepared socially and emotionally.

Tammy Barosso, who has taught fourth grade at St. Stan's for 20 years, said she has missed daily interactions with her students, when she could read their body language and hear tones in their voices.

"They've been thrust into this world right now that's so very different. I worry; what are my students really feeling?" she said.

Marta Brown just finished her fourth year teaching middle school social studies and religion at St. Stan's. While some students are coping well with change, others are not.

"They need that contact. It's going to be nice for me to be able to give it to them when I'm able to be with them," she said.

St. Agnes Principal Fadia Rostom Makdisi said schools will have to communicate well with parents and teachers.

"You're going to have parents who are concerned, who are scared and are not going to send their kids back for a couple of weeks into the school year," she said.

"But, compared with the spring, I think we are much more informed and prepared to sit down and say what worked and what didn't work, so that we can reopen to the best of our abilities," Rostom Makdisi said.

Understanding needs

Catholic schools also are preparing hybrid and fully remote scenarios, like their public school counterparts. Principals and teachers of all three Berkshire Catholic schools surveyed families throughout the spring to get a sense of what was working at home and what wasn't.

Baillargeon is encouraging schools to share their findings with the diocese.

Rogge, of St. Stanislaus Kostka School, said surveys have shown that while most students had access to a computer or tablet, internet connectivity ranged from "super fast" to completely lacking. Some students got help from grandparents or a parent working from home; others, from older siblings, while others were on their own.

"Some parents feel that they're not capable of helping their students, whether it's due to shared parenting or technology issues, or parents are working," Rogge said.

In planning for the new school year, Baillargeon said he wants his schools to help families address the inequities.

Barosso said it wasn't uncommon for her to get late-night emails from frantic or frustrated parents.

"I tell my families they're not a bother. They're letting me know what they're dealing with," she said.

Barosso said she encourages families and students to share their struggles and let schools know what has been helpful.

As a father with eight children between toddler and high school ages, Baillargeon said he understands the range of experiences — from tender moments of togetherness to complete meltdowns — that families endured this spring in relative isolation.

"Our goal is to better engage our families, to physically get them involved with the schools, when it's safe to do this again," the superintendent said. "Our schools should not just be a place where kids go to get information. Our schools need to be communities where kids go and they can feel safe and feel loved and can learn."

Jenn Smith can be reached at, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.