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Reshaping and reopening our Catholic schools

It’s safe to say that the start of the new school year will look much different from years past. For Catholic school students in the Archdiocese of Newark, there will be new protocols, safety measures, and guidelines for in-person learning as well as options for remote instruction. Reshaping and reopening plans have not been taken lightly.  For some, it even means new schools.

The Office of Schools of the Archdiocese of Newark announced in early August that five elementary schools, sadly, will not reopen this fall and three elementary schools will consolidate with nearby school communities.

Noting that funding resources for Catholic schools in the archdiocese were critically reduced since the outbreak of COVID-19 and that paid registrations for the 2020-2021 academic year are dramatically reduced, the Schools Office and archdiocesan Finance Office agreed the current status of some schools is unsustainable. Consequently, they presented recommendations to Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R., archbishop of Newark, who approved the closures of the following schools:

- Transfiguration Academy, Bergenfield
- St. Joseph Academy, Bogota
- The Academy of St. Mary, Rutherford
- St. Francis Xavier, Newark
- Ironbound Catholic Academy, Newark

The following school communities will consolidate:

- St. Joseph of the Palisades, West New York, will welcome the school communities of Mother Seton in Union City and St. Augustine School in Union City to their campus.
- St. Joseph the Carpenter, Roselle, will welcome Our Lady of Guadalupe in Elizabeth to their campus.

“I recognize that this news is profoundly painful for our students and their families, teachers and principals, school communities, and those who support Catholic education, as well as for our archdiocesan community. I extend my prayers and support to all those affected,” Cardinal Tobin said in a statement. “Our schools represent communities that offer vital faith formation for children. The difficult decision to further consolidate our Catholic Schools follows considerable discussion and examination of their viability under the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Education remains a crucial element in the life and mission of this archdiocese.”

The commitment to education can be seen in the creative ways in which school communities rose to the challenge of distance learning from March through June, and now, the carefully thought out plans allowing them to welcome students back in September. While the plans vary from school to school based on their particular needs, here’s a look at how some of our Catholic elementary schools will be reopening.

Our Lady of Czestochowa School, Jersey City

A vibrant school in the downtown, waterfront area of Jersey City, Our Lady of Czestochowa  switched into planning mode for the upcoming academic year immediately upon closing out the last year. This involved weekly meetings of the Safety Committee, which early on focused on procuring cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment and determining a range of procedures that would likely be necessitated by order of the governor. In response to social distancing recommendations, OLC will operate at half capacity, with students assigned to two cohorts, each of which will attend school on alternating weeks. Students and staff will use designated school entrances where they will have their temperatures checked, and signs have been posted throughout the school to encourage healthy hygiene. While students will eat lunch in their classrooms, a modified recess will be provided for all students to safely encourage social interaction with peers.

Interim Principal Thomas Keating said they have been regularly surveying both the parents and staff about its plans. He reported 64 percent of students have opted for in-person learning, while 36 percent have chosen the fully remote option.

Despite the changes in daily life at OLC, Keating is confident his community will lean on its Catholic identity to pull through these unusual times. “Our Catholic values are needed now more than ever, and our incredible school community will continue to work together as a team,” he said. “My motto this summer has been: ‘I in no way look forward to the challenges we'll face this year, but I am grateful for the people I'll face them with.’ When faced with a challenge, exceptional people find a way to rise to the occasion, and we're lucky to have such exceptional people here. Together we can do this.”

Holy Trinity School, Westfield

With families mixed on how they feel about returning to school, Holy Trinity has opted to offer a variety of options to accommodate parents’ personal preferences. Parents will be able to select full-day in-person instruction, remote full-day instruction or a combination of in-person and remote instruction via lessons streamed live from the classroom.

For those who will be physically reporting to the building, there will be designated entrances to prevent crowding as temperature checks are conducted. Desks in classrooms have been rearranged to encourage social distancing with sneeze guards and plexiglass partitions in place as needed. The instructional schedule has also been adjusted to minimize movement between student groups. Face masks will be required in the building.

Principal Dr. Adele Ellis recognizes that, unfortunately, some school traditions will not be possible under the current restrictions. “We will not be able to gather together physically as a whole school for our morning prayer. We will be in our individual classrooms, and it will be done over the PA system,” she said. “We will also not be able to gather in our Faith Families, which was groups of students from different grade levels working on community projects, nor can we offer our daytime club periods for our middle school students. What will remain the same is the community/family feeling. Our gatherings will be different, but our caring and respect for each other will never change.”

St. Thomas the Apostle School, Bloomfield

With more than 40,000 square feet of space, St. Thomas the Apostle School is uniquely able to employ distancing measures to promote the health and safety of its students and staff. Even so, the school is not relying on distancing alone for its reopening plan. Principal Michael Petrillo reported an investment in upgrades to the building’s ventilation and HVAC system to ensure a flow of consistently clean air throughout the indoor spaces. Additionally, contactless water bottle filling stations have replaced traditional water fountains, and an EPA-friendly 360-sprayer will be available to sanitize items throughout the school. After the school day, a state-approved cleaning company will sanitize all spaces nightly.

The school has purchased tents to utilize outdoor spaces for learning when the weather permits. Hallways and stairwells will feature signs designating directional flow, temperature checks will be employed, and lunch and recess periods will be staggered to allow students the opportunity to socialize without excessive crowding.

Various instructional formats are being offered, but Petrillo said an early survey of parents indicated 77 percent of families wish their students to return to in-person instruction. In order to best support student learning while minimizing risk exposure, the school has switched to an all-digital format, which will reduce the need to distribute or share supplies in the classroom. Asked of the variables in planning for the coming year, Petrillo remarked, “We understand there are still questions that do not have answers from the state level, and we are working with our families to maintain a safe and healthy environment regularly for the students, their families and our faculty.”

Notre Dame Academy, Palisades Park

The administration at Notre Dame Academy involved its families and other stakeholders in the decision-making process. Through a series of Zoom calls and a parent survey, Principal Mark Valvano and Vice Principal Eric Reid learned the majority of families wish to return their children to in-person instruction.

In order to safely welcome students back, the administrative team engaged grade-level committees to develop protocols and procedures. Together, they researched the reopening plans of various other districts and schools across the country, while closely adhering to state and CDC guidelines to ensure compliance. Above all, the team at Notre Dame has made sure to balance medical recommendations with students’ academic, social-emotional and spiritual needs to ensure all areas are met.

For those in the minority who will opt to learn remotely, Reid said the school has invested heavily in technology upgrades throughout the building. “Every classroom will be outfitted with streaming cameras to provide live instruction to students engaged in remote learning. We now have 1:1 Chromebooks in grades 3 through 8, with additional Chromebook carts and iPads available for students in our elementary and early education programs,” he said. “Our teachers did extensive research and found outstanding online programs and apps that we have fully integrated into our curriculum.”

“What will remain the same at Notre Dame Academy, like other archdiocesan schools, is providing a rigorous curriculum and educational experience that nurtures the whole child,” Reid and Valvano said in a joint statement. “Through faith, compassion and commitment, we are ready for the challenges that lie ahead and the successes to follow.”

Academy of Our Lady of Grace, Fairview

The Academy of Our Lady of Grace in Fairview has been diligently working on its reopening plan since June. The school’s plan incorporates a temperature-scanning kiosk at the entrance and plexiglass coverings around student desks. Floor markings and signs have been posted to remind students about spacing, distancing and hand hygiene. Six hand sanitizing stations have been installed throughout the building. Personal protective equipment will also be available to the school community.

Like many other archdiocesan elementary schools, the majority of families and students at Our Lady of Grace wish to return to in-person learning this fall. A survey of parents indicated only about 30 percent of families would opt to continue with remote instruction. To enhance the experience of students learning from home, the school will provide access to lessons streamed lived from the classroom.

Students will notice that despite new safety requirements, much of the school community remains the same. “We may be socially distanced, wearing masks and following strict guidelines, but the tradition and high standard education will remain the same,” noted Principal Filomena D’Amico. “We are excited to see those smiles, even under the masks, return!”

St. Nicholas School, Jersey City

St. Nicholas School Principal Bernadette Miglin anticipates as many as half of families will opt for the remote learning option the school will be offering students. The school’s reopening plan was drafted using input from parent surveys and meetings, as well as state and archdiocesan guidelines. For those students whose parents prefer remote instruction, the school has obtained webcams to enable students to participate in lessons as they are happening using livestream technology.

Students and staff reporting to the building will find various safety protocols in place. “St. Nicholas School is preparing the safest school environment possible for our faculty and for our students who have chosen the in-person learning option this fall,” Miglin said. “Classroom changes include a socially distanced desk arrangement, exhaust fans in each classroom, hand sanitizer stations in each classroom, plastic barriers between rows of students and an operating procedure that provides for no sharing of supplies between students. For our younger students, desktop barriers will be used to designate workspaces.”

Designated building entrances with temperature checks, one-way stairwells, hands-free restroom door openers, hand sanitizing stations and many signs posted throughout the building will remind students to stay healthy and safe. Students will remain in cohorts to minimize intermingling between groups, and recess and lunch will be modified allowing socialization with proper distancing in place. Miglin remains confident the “positive school culture and climate of the St. Nicholas community will remain unchanged, as will [the] focus on academics.”

The archdiocese serves more than 25,000 students throughout 50 elementary schools and 23 secondary schools. To learn more, visit www.catholicschoolsnj.org.

Click here for a special report on how Catholic schools across the country are handling reopening strategies.