Robin Smith, principal of Blanchet School in Salem, stands in a room with desks arranged for social distancing. Most schools in the Portland Archdiocese are preparing to bring students back to campus in the fall with a modified schedule and a plethora of new safety protocols. (Courtesy Megan Johnston/Blanchet)
Robin Smith, principal of Blanchet School in Salem, stands in a room with desks arranged for social distancing. Most schools in the Portland Archdiocese are preparing to bring students back to campus in the fall with a modified schedule and a plethora of new safety protocols. (Courtesy Megan Johnston/Blanchet)

Each morning during the academic year, Holy Trinity Principal Ashley Sheridan and Father David Gutmann, pastor of the Beaverton parish, would open the doors of the school together.

“A rush of kids would enter, and we’d have to say, ‘No running,’ and there was so much energy and joy,” recalled Sheridan.

After months of locked doors, the principal can’t wait to resume the pre-pandemic ritual — even if health-related modifications mean that instead of a rush there might be an organized line of socially distanced, mask-clad youths.

“I’m so eager to see the students back at school,” Sheridan said. “I will be so happy; there will be tears.”

Sheridan and other Catholic school leaders around the Portland Archdiocese are working to ensure a level of in-class instruction this fall, while at the same time mapping out various scenarios and remaining cognizant that a spike in coronavirus cases or an additional government mandate could mean a rapid pivot.

It’s an effort that resembles putting together multiple jigsaw puzzles simultaneously with key pieces missing.

“Getting everyone back on campus will be a challenge but it is worth it,” said Paul Hogan, principal of Jesuit High School in Southwest Portland.

Adapting with resilience

Most schools in western Oregon plan either to adopt a hybrid model of instruction — in which students learn both in school buildings and remotely — or to bring all students back on campus. All are prepared to shift back to fully digital learning if needed.

Catholic schools have asked families and teachers for input about the fall, and administrators are monitoring recommendations from the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education. They’ve also been working with the archdiocesan Department of Catholic Schools, which created a framework for reopening.

The Catholic Schools Department has “done an awesome job supporting us through the return planning, answering questions and providing resources,” Sheridan said.

Private and public schools are required to submit their reopening plans to their governing bodies by Aug. 15. Private schools must address the first three of eight areas covered in guidelines issued by the state’s education department and the OHA. All schools are to implement rigorous hygiene and cleaning strategies; practice social distancing, with individuals remaining 6 feet apart as much as possible; and organize students into smaller learning cohorts when feasible.

The guidelines recommend face coverings for all staff and students in sixth through 12th grade.

Administrators have been inspired by their staffs’ adaptability and hard work during the fall planning — just as they were last spring.

“For the benefit of the kids they’ve really worked their tails off,” said Bob Weber, president of Blanchet School in Salem.

When instruction moved fully online in March, “it was very stressful,” said Nicole Foran, principal of St. Mary’s Academy in Southwest Portland. “But I’m surrounded by such smart, creative and resilient people it’s actually become an exciting challenge” to determine ways to continue instruction. “It gives me hope that people are strong and people are resilient.”

A hybrid approach

Central Catholic High School in Southeast Portland intends to begin the school year in a fully digital format if Multnomah County remains in phase one of reopening. (The state does not require schools to tie their reopening to the state’s phases.)

When the county moves to phase two, the Southeast Portland high school will blend distance learning with on-campus instruction. Two cohorts, split alphabetically, will take turns spending approximately half the week on campus. The alphabet-based groupings allow family members to remain together.

A number of other high schools, including Jesuit, La Salle Prep in Milwaukie and St. Mary’s Academy, anticipate a similar cohort-based hybrid plan. The schedules have time built in for health screenings and extensive cleanings.

“In some ways totally remote instruction is simpler,” said Hogan at Jesuit. “But it’s not nearly as good for kids’ social and emotional health.”

Hogan said that whatever combination of learning modalities are used, Jesuit plans to stay focused on its mission and “how we can maintain relationships with God and with one another.”

St. Andrew Nativity School in Northeast Portland is in the midst of determining its fall schedule but likely will follow a hybrid model.

“We are blessed that certain things make us more nimble and able to adjust the plan more quickly than larger schools,” said Lizzie Petticrew, principal of the tuition-free Jesuit middle school that serves predominately students of color from low-income backgrounds.

Large classrooms and small class size will help with social distancing, and Nativity already operates with a cohort model that groups students by grade and gender.

Petticrew noted that the coronavirus has hit Black and Latino communities disproportionately hard, and that’s been reflected in Nativity families. Many school parents either have lost their jobs or had their work hours reduced. And a number of family members have underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, that make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Extended family members in Mexico have died of the virus.

“A big part of the fall will be addressing the social and emotional well-being of students,” said Petticrew.

New technologies

The hybrid instruction model requires an element of online learning, and schools have considered a range of options to prevent teachers from juggling both digital and in-person components.

St. Mary’s Academy invested in a technology called Swivl, which enables simultaneous real-time learning in the classroom and at home. It includes a dock for an iPad that can follow teachers around a classroom and upload recordings online. Remote students are able to ask questions and participate in class.

A major impetus for Swivl, which is pricey, is that it allows more flexibility for students who choose to opt out of classroom instruction, said Foran. Nearly all Catholic schools are trying to accommodate families who do not feel comfortable sending students to campus this fall.

Foran said that post-pandemic, the iPad doc technology will mean students with health problems or severe anxiety may continue their learning remotely.

The on-campus route

At St. Anne School in Grants Pass, staff intends to welcome students back on campus full time this fall.

As at Nativity, smaller classes make social distancing easier, said Father Bill Holtzinger, pastor of St. Anne Parish.

Classes will remain together and eat in their classrooms rather than the cafeteria. Desks will be spaced further apart and the school may use desk dividers.

“Considering all that’s happened this year, I have great hope that the school will pivot well,” Father Holtzinger said, adding that safety is the No. 1 priority. At the time of the interview, the priest was in quarantine after being exposed to an individual with COVID-19.

“I take safety seriously, and the school is taking this seriously, and that gives confidence to parents,” he said.

Blanchet in Salem also will open its campus to students five days a week. Staff are finalizing details, but “we are a small school and have a large building, so we’ll be able to keep kids safe and spaced apart,” said Weber.

Teachers will wear protective gear, and they are determining what the face-covering protocol will be for students.

“It will be new and awkward and uncomfortable in some ways,” Weber said. “But it will allow kids to continue to learn together.”

Holy Trinity is looking at different plans for the fall, but Sheridan’s first choice is to have most students back on campus and to offer livestreamed lessons for families who elect to remain at home.

There will be two cohorts of each grade, and the school expects to hire additional teachers and adapt current teachers’ roles to accommodate the split classes.

The school will make use of a large portable building, its music classroom and the church, turning several meeting rooms into classrooms.

Part of any in-school instruction will be helping students process their emotions after more than five months away from classrooms.

“Even though it may not seem like trauma, last spring was a trauma for kids in many ways,” said Sheridan. “There’s been a huge emphasis in the archdiocese on prioritizing social and emotional health over test scores. Kids will need time to share their feelings and worries.”

Students also will require some time to get reacquainted with school etiquette. The younger students may need to be reminded that “they can’t take off their shoes and go shirtless in their social studies class like they did at home,” laughed Sheridan.

From hugs to high-fives, physical interaction among students typically is part of elementary school social life. Nurturing relationships while encouraging social distancing will be a challenge, Sheridan said. “But we know the importance of those connections, and I think teachers and kids will get creative in how they connect.”

Perhaps they will develop a foot “handshake” or special signs for their class, she said. “I think team building activities are going to make a big comeback.”

katies@catholicsentinel.org