Payton Foteff, a fourth grader at St. John the Baptist Catholic School, studies at her desk. (Courtesy St. John the Baptist Catholic School)
Payton Foteff, a fourth grader at St. John the Baptist Catholic School, studies at her desk. (Courtesy St. John the Baptist Catholic School)

MILWAUKIE — Students and staff at St. John the Baptist School here have had students on campus in a hybrid learning model for most of the year.

The students first were only on campus for two hours at a time. Soon, they transitioned into mornings in person and digital learning in the afternoon. But on Jan. 19, the school brought their students back for in-person learning on campus all day, every day.

“Overwhelmingly, the community wants to see the kids back in school full-time,” said Amber Ploussard, principal St. John the Baptist. Staff, the parish pastor and the school advisory council all collaborated in the process.

Her staff, Ploussard said, is dedicated to doing what is needed to get the kids back in school. Schedules are being reworked, recesses are being added, additional cleaning will be put in place and new protocols are being set up for student lunches and snack breaks. Each classroom is premeasured so that each student has 35 sq. ft. of space. There’s mask wearing at all times, drop off and pick up are being done by drive-through and temperature checks are done as children enter the school.

Ploussard said there’s always a heightened level of anxiety around bringing students back to school full time in light of the pandemic. Still, she believes her staff has worked hard to make safety a top priority.

“Our protocols are so well followed and everything is managed so well, it’s as safe as we can make it,” said Ploussard.

The fear of an outbreak starting doesn’t overpower the community’s desire to have the kids in school full-time and their ability to do that safely, she added.

Ploussard said there’s a change in the students once they get on campus.

“We’ve seen such a difference in the emotional well-being of our students,” she said. “There is anxiety and fear but this is what’s best for our kids.”

Holy Trinity School in Beaverton will also be bringing students back full-time, in part because of the mental health of students.

“We know it’s been really hard on them,” said Ashley Sheridan, principal at Holy Trinity. “The number of students coming back with anxiety, eating issues, behavior issues is higher than we ever expected.”

There have been students on campus at the school every day since Sept. 8. All students had the choice to come for two hours, two mornings a week. And because the school has a childcare license, 150 students were able to come any day, all day to spend the time in a study hall environment in the school gym or cafeteria.

Sheridan said everything has had to be thought out. That includes limiting the entrances students come in, having thermometers and sanitizer stations at every door, changing recess and lunch times, having stickers across the school’s floor indicating how far apart six feet is and even initiating a new bathroom protocol. The young kids all line up with outstretched “airplane” arms to ensure none of them are close to each other.

Schools that have been successful with bringing students back are the ones that have developed 26 different plans to put into place in any given situation, said Sheridan.

“My staff and I are in the same mindset,” she added, pointing out the teachers are the ones implementing the new changes. Her teachers are “jumping into a situation they never knew because they love the kids.”

Whether teaching online or in-person, they’re doing as much as they can without complaint, said Sheridan.

The school has seen no cases of coronavirus develop.

“We’re confident our procedures are working,” said Sheridan. “There’s absolutely still worry. It keeps me up at night.”

However, the school is doing everything possible to be careful. In a letter to parents, Sheridan said the reasons for bringing children back full-time was three-fold. First, the school is built on community and that is best done in person. Second, the school needs to meet the commitment to parents paying tuition. And third, it is vital to address the mental effects of the students.

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org