Of the 91 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, nearly one-half reopened this academic year following a blended (hybrid) learning model. These schools are combining distance learning with in-person instruction as students and staff adhere to strict health and safety measures. 

Two principals whose Catholic schools made the decision to open in this manner say the planning and work needed to reopen their schools – albeit in a limited fashion – was worth the effort as they welcomed students back to class.

“So far it is going really, really well. It is so nice to have kids back in the classroom,” said Ann Gillespie, principal at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Elementary School in Clinton, Maryland.

For Brian Blomquist, principal at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Silver Spring, Maryland, “all in all, this building is just a building – it is not a school until the kids are back in it. It feels like a school again.”

Catholic schools throughout the archdiocese could choose between one of three reopening models: the hybrid model (chosen by 49 percent of the schools); a distance learning model (chosen by 28 percent of the schools) where all instruction is offered virtually with no in-person gatherings for students; and a modified classroom (chosen by 23 percent of the schools) where schools are open for in-person instruction with preventative measures enforced and face coverings and social distancing required at all times. 

“It was a difficult decision (whether to open the school to blended instruction), and I prayed long and hard,” Gillespie said. “But, there was something within me that could not not open our doors to a community when there is a need.”

Blomquist said his school’s decision to open with hybrid learning came about after surveying students’ parents.

“We surveyed parents, and about half wanted to come in and half wanted to stay home,” he said. “There wasn’t anything perfect out there, and this (blended learning opening) was the best one for us. I think our families are happy with what they got.”

Blomquist said at his school, “we’ve considered it all, and this wasn’t an easy decision. There wasn’t any certainty, but we selected the plan we did, and we wanted to go forward confidently.”

A student works on a laptop in class at St. John the Baptist School in Silver Spring. (Courtesy photo)

At St. John the Baptist School, Blomquist said, choosing which students would attend class in person and which students would learn virtually “just fell in naturally” because school parents were about evenly split on which style of education they wanted for their child.

At St. John the Evangelist School, a different method was used to decide which children would attend class in person and which children would attend virtually.

Although about 40 percent of parents there said they would feel comfortable with their children attending class in person, Gillespie said, “25 percent of our students are inside the building three days a week. We could have opened it up to more students, but I’m glad we started small. Our plan is to increase the number of students in the second quarter.”

She said the school “put certain criteria in place in choosing students” who would attend in person. “We looked at students with academic need, parents who are essential workers and those parents who indicated they were interested” in having their students in class, she said. “It was important to meet the needs of parents who had to get back to work and students who are struggling.”

Both schools abruptly closed their doors on March 13 – as did all Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington – when local jurisdictions mandated quarantining, social distancing and other self-isolation methods in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The schools remained closed to in-person instruction for the rest of the academic year, and an archdiocesan task force was commissioned to determine if and how schools would reopen in the fall. The task force studied and approved each individual school’s reopening plans.

Magaly Morales, a teacher and librarian at St. John the Evangelist School in Clinton, Maryland, takes the temperature of second grader Christopher Gonzales on Aug. 26, 2020. At right is his sister, seventh grader Gabriella Gonzales. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Both Gillespie and Blomquist said once their schools decided to open following the hybrid model, they went to work to ensure staff and students had a safe learning environment.

“We totally revamped the front office and health room. We put up plexiglass. We put divider walls in the bathrooms. We put tape on hallway floors to mark social distancing,” Gillespie said. She added that one school parent, who is in the military and responsible for social distancing in his workplace, came into the school and measured distances and “designed all of our classrooms.”

She said that changes were also made to the school’s arrival and pick up routines, and “it’s all going like clockwork.”

Similar measures were taken at St. John the Baptist School, Blomquist said.

“We put a lot of resources into this” reopening, he said. “The kids are very good about following the procedures and rules we have in place. I think their parents have talked to them about our rules and how important it is to follow them.”

In both schools, virtual and in-person students are taught at the same time, with students following lessons either from their desk in the classroom or from their desk at home via the Internet.

Adrienne Espinosa, a third grade student at St. John the Evangelist School in Clinton, uses a laptop in her classroom. (St. John the Evangelist School photo by Andrea Kadajski) 

Both principals said that the students who are in the classroom are making every effort to adhere to the individual school’s health and safety guidelines.

“The students know they are going to have to keep their masks on and keep social distancing,” Gillespie said. “They know we made sure that everyone feels heard and supported and that we have put all the precautions in place to make sure that everyone feels safe.” She added that “they (the students) are coming back to a familiar place, but things are different. They are more used to our new normal than I thought it would be.”

For Blomquist, “by the children’s reaction, I know it is hard on them – it’s difficult to be still all day and wear a mask all day, but they are doing what they have to do. They are happy being with each other.”

“It’s been interesting to watch them (the students),” he said. “It’s been quiet. It doesn’t quite feel the same yet. But, we have all these different rules in effect for safety, and we should expect it to look and feel differently.”

The principals noted that not only parents and students had to adapt to the hybrid model of learning, but educators had to, as well.

“I think we were a little shell shocked the first day, but by midafternoon, we were ready to go and we got into our flow,” Blomquist said. “We really don’t know how this is going to evolve – will it end abruptly? Will it trickle out? – but we are prepared for it. All we can do is the best we can to serve the families and their children.”

Blomquist added that working in a Catholic school has made the transition to the new style of teaching easier for him and his staff.

“We are fortunate. We have our faith, and I don’t know how we would do this without it,” he said. “When you don’t know what is going to happen, you have to give up the feeling of controlling everything and realize that not everything is under your control. People of faith understand that.”

For Gillespie, “since March 13 it (being a principal) has been completely different – I’ve been asked to do things I never thought I would be called to do.”

“My heart goes out to my peers. The role of a Catholic school principal is different, as we have been called on to do a lot of different things,” she said. “In my 25 years with the Archdiocese of Washington, this is by far the toughest thing I have ever had to do. But, I am at peace with my decision (to reopen). I can see their (the students’) faces and make a personal connection. I look forward to getting back to where we used to be, and we are well on our way to that.”