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Diocesan schools customizing re-opening plans to fit their needs

 071020SJEpicnic

Shon Peterson of Schererville extends his arms to pick up his son Zachary, 4, at the back-to-school picnic held indoors last August at St. John the Evangelist School in St. John. After spending the final three months of the 2019-20 school year learning from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Diocese of Gary students will find new protocols in place at all schools in an effort to keep them safe and heathy, and more outdoor activities will be scheduled while weather permits, further reducing the risk of getting he virus. (Anthony D. Alonzo file photo) 

 

BY MARLENE A. ZLOZA

Northwest Indiana Catholic

 

      MERRILLVILLE – This may be the first summer when youngsters can’t wait for school to resume, and leaders of the Diocese of Gary schools are working hard to make sure they return to a safe and healthy environment after three months of home study forced by statewide COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home orders.

      “Because of the pandemic, schools will look different this fall, but school will be in session and learning will go on,” assured Dr. Joseph Majchrowicz, superintendent of the Diocese of Gary Catholic Schools.

      The diocesan schools office has developed a School Re-Entry Platform with three planks:

  1. The default set of guidelines is the Indiana Considerations for Learning and Safe Schools (IN-CLASS), issued on June 5 by the Indiana Department of Education to guide the re-opening of schools statewide.
  2. An in-service program was presented for all principals to review marketing, safety and sanitation, e-Learning options, and the social and emotional well-being of students and staff.
  3. A School Re-Entry Task Force composed of Dr. Majchrowicz; Tim Pivarnik, assistant superintendent; Emily Hynes, educational services coordinator; Ben Freyman, attorney; Dr. Lisa Gold, Franciscan Health pediatrician; Alyson Headd, principal of Marquette High School; and Jessica Gonzalez, principal of St. John the Baptist School in Whiting, met weekly and developed a set of guidelines that diocesan principals could refer to as they developed their re-opening plans.

      “Our schools office and the principals decided early on that each school would develop their own hybrid plan,” said Dr. Majchrowicz. “Because of the unique qualities of each school and facilities, educational plans cannot be ‘one size fits all.’”

      “The principals have all worked extremely hard developing plans that display academic rigor in a safe and sanitized Catholic environment, which could include on-site learning and may also have an e-Learning component,” he explained, noting that a spike in Indiana COVID-19 cases this fall could lead to a new stay-at-home order that all schools must be prepared to follow.

      “Everything we are developing needs to be fluid, flexible and respectful,” he added. “We are literally building the plane as we are flying it.”

      While each school chooses its re-opening date in August, “They were asked to submit a calendar that shows 180 student days (as required by the state),” Dr. Majchrowicz noted.

      Depending on the ability to social distance, handwashing and sanitizer use will be encouraged and masks will be provided - and required in at least common areas of schools. “We are all going to be very respectful and mindful of each other while we are setting a new normal,” Dr. Majchrowicz said. “A number of extra classes may be added to accommodate distancing, and at some grade schools the students may eat lunch in their classroom.”

      At St. John the Baptist School in Whiting, the changes this year will be big and small for its 330 students. “We had to order new classroom desks, because we had conjoined desks and students now need to be separated,” said Gonzalez.

      Already planned was the purchase of iPads for each middle schooler in grades 6 to 8, while each elementary student will receive their own Chromebook, added Gonzalez, for use in school and, should the need arise, at home.

      “Our school, and others in close proximity in north Lake County - Bishop Noll, St. Casimir, St. Stanislaus, and St. John Bosco - form a pretty tight-knit group and the principals have met weekly,” Gonzalez added. “We decided on five key points to communicate: pre-screening by parents to check their child’s temperature and keep them at home if it rises above 100.4 degrees; social distancing in classrooms; face masks required in hallways and common areas; outdoor activities, including physical education and music classes, whenever possible; and teachers rotating for special classes instead of students.

      “We are fortunate to have a cafeteria large enough to use despite social distancing, and a large gym,” added Gonzalez.

      Bishop Noll Institute principal Lorenza Jara Pastrick said the goal is “to keep students safe, healthy and engaged in quality learning while providing a sense of normalcy and community” for the 450 students and staff.

      “We have the benefit of having a school built for large numbers, so we have space for social distancing and will limit most classes to 12 students,” Pastrick said. “Teachers will be encouraged to take classes outdoors, weather permitting, and although we can use our cafeteria, students will be encouraged to take their lunches outdoors to the football field and other fields.”

      Students will remain in their cohort (group) for English, math and theology classes, minimizing contact with others, Pastrick explained, and fall sports will follow IHSAA guidelines, with all teams having returned July 8 to start conditioning. After-school clubs and activities will practice social distancing or meet virtually.

      Pastrick also said BNI will move ahead with its 100-year anniversary celebration, although some events may be altered. Monthly videos and ‘commercials’ will be broadcast, ensuring “a year of excitement ahead for us,” she promised.

      “Chromebook is a (helpful) device in education, but humans crave human contact and want to be with other people. Kids are anxious to get back to school, as are teachers,” Dr. Majchrowicz said. “We are social animals, and it’s not just about teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. Students learn how to get along and how to problem solve together in school.

      “We are living through history,” the schools superintendent added. “Stay tuned.”

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