August 7, 2020

Challenges and hopes await for students, teachers as another school year begins

Social distancing was a priority during the June 21 graduation ceremony of the 19 members of the Class of 2020 of Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School in Madison in the school’s gym. Many new challenges and hopes await students who are returning for another school year. (Photo courtesy of Laura Jayne Gardner Photography)

Social distancing was a priority during the June 21 graduation ceremony of the 19 members of the Class of 2020 of Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School in Madison in the school’s gym. Many new challenges and hopes await students who are returning for another school year. (Photo courtesy of Laura Jayne Gardner Photography)

By John Shaughnessy

Mary McCoy knows that the approaching academic year for Catholic schools in the archdiocese is already being marked by a combination of uncertainty and anxiety—just as fears concerning the coronavirus have had an impact on every school system in the United States.

At the same time, the assistant superintendent for the Office of Catholic Schools in the archdiocese knows how hard administrators, principals and teachers have worked and prepared this summer to make the 68 Catholic schools across central and southern Indiana as safe as possible.

“Our principals and our teachers want nothing more than for our students to be safe,” McCoy said. “Our Catholic schools have been known to be safe environments, and they will continue to be safe environments. They’re just going to look a little different.

“Our teachers and principals have worked all summer to ensure there’s a safe environment for our kids to come back to because they do miss them. They miss them so much. They know their kids so well, and they know their families so well. That’s the beauty of our Catholic schools.”

McCoy shared one more key element that has guided administrators, principals and teachers as Catholic schools in the archdiocese prepare to open throughout August for in-school instruction.

“A big concern we’ve heard from principals and teachers is that in Catholic schools we focus so much on relationships,” she said. “So the prayers have been to get the kids in the building and really focus on those relationships at the beginning of the year so if they do have to go virtual, they’ve at least got those relationships built with their students.”

Those insights about the hopes and challenges of this school year were part of an Aug. 3 conversation that The Criterion had with McCoy and her two fellow assistant superintendents, Rob Rash and Michelle Radomsky. The three assistant superintendents are sharing responsibilities in leading the Office of Catholic Schools following the recent resignation of Gina Fleming as superintendent.

Here are some other key insights they shared regarding the start of the school year.

Relying upon medical experts to prepare for the start of the school year

McCoy: “One of the main ‘best practices’ we’ve stressed over and over all summer is for administrators to work with your local health department. Because they are the medical experts. Focusing on everything from ensuring the safety of the students to ensuring that proper protocols are being followed if there is a positive case or if a student is showing symptoms.

They’ve all done re-entry plans. They have the blessings or approval from their local health departments as well.”

Making parents part of the process of keeping their children and schools as safe as possible

McCoy: “We’re asking all parents to do the monitoring of their own kids—to do temperature checks, to monitor whether their own kids are showing any sort of symptoms. And if they do, to keep them home. There’s a monitoring sheet they’re supposed to complete each morning.”

Rash: “My advice to parents is to trust the administration. Trust that they’re working diligently on making your school safe. Trust the advice from administrators and teachers to wear masks and do social distancing. I know from talking to them, they make good faith attempts.”

Establishing a system for administrators to follow if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19

Radomsky: “They’re to contact their local health department, and also they’re to contact our office. We have a form online that they’re to fill out, so we’re kept aware of the cases in our schools. The local health department will give them the information they need—who needs to be notified, contact tracing. They’re recommending dedicated seating charts for each class, for all lunch periods, to help if tracing is needed.”

McCoy: “That’s why they’re encouraging us to keep our students in cohorts. Pretty much that second-grade class is with that second-grade class all day long—for lunch, for recess. So if there is a kid who gets it in second grade, the contact tracing will be a lot easier.”

Trying to balance the safety of high school students with their need to interact with fellow students

Radomsky: “Many of our Indianapolis high schools are doing some sort of hybrid model, only having half the kids in the building at a time, at least at the start, to cut down some of those social possibilities of huge masses of people congregating in the hallways. A lot of them have looked at different options for lockers so students don’t have to go to their lockers between classes so there isn’t the sort of congregating there.”

McCoy: “To add to that, we’ve asked all schools to put into their plans an education piece with their students and their staff—to make them aware of why we are doing this and knowing the facts behind the virus so students do understand why it is important to have a mask on and why social distancing is important. We’ve encouraged all our schools to have that training with our students, our teachers, our staffs in the first couple of days.”

Reassessing a student’s education level after ending the past school year with virtual learning

McCoy: “There are obviously going to be gaps there, some bigger than others. As we know, some students had better access than others and better resources at home, and more help from parents.”

Radomsky: “Teachers want their students in the building. More than anything else, they want to meet them, assess them and give them that kind of instruction they were taught to give those kids.”

Looking out for the welfare and health of teachers

McCoy: “One of the big concerns principals have is the safety of our teachers and our staffs. They worry about them even more than the students because they’re more vulnerable. We’re encouraging them to have individual conversations with their teachers, and make sure the teachers are feeling comfortable to approach their administrators when they do have concerns or challenges with coming back into the building and instructing their students.”

Setting different expectations if a switch to virtual learning has to be made

McCoy: “I think it will be much more structured this year. I was just

looking at someone’s plan. They need to be online at a certain time. They need to be in uniform. They need to have no food, no drinks, no restroom breaks without the teacher’s permission. They need to make sure their assignments are turned in at a certain time. I think we’ve learned to set high expectations for those who are learning at home.”

Keeping the focus on Catholic education

McCoy: “We’re here to form and educate our students in our Catholic faith. Yes, we can still do it virtually. However, there’s nothing like doing it in person and being able to attend Mass and being able to participate in prayer together as a community.”

Radomsky: “Even at the end of last year, our principals and teachers were still praying with their students online. We saw all sorts of things in May with May crownings, and other ways that our schools were able to do things virtually. And certainly the way that religion can permeate into all the other subjects—that still happened in our schools.

“It’s a challenge for our teachers, but they’re up to the challenge.” †

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