When Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington abruptly closed their doors to in-person instruction March 13 in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, a plan was already in place to continue educating students via the Internet for the rest of the school year. As those schools looked to their opening for the 2020-2021 academic school year, a task force was established to determine how schools would teach in this time of pandemic.

The archdiocese’s Reopening of Schools Task Force issued a document – “Onward Together in Faith” – that was distributed to parents and educators summarizing the reopening plans of 62 archdiocesan high schools, elementary schools, and early learning centers, and 29 independent Catholic schools located in the archdiocese.

“We worked most of the summer with this” reopening plan, said Anne Dillon, director of special education for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Catholic Schools Office who also supervises Catholic school nurses. “The main challenge was that this has been a fluid situation from the get-go. Information was constantly changing.”

Dillon was one of more than a dozen members of the task force that was created to determine how schools would open in the fall. The task force included Catholic Schools Office officials, parents, teachers, school nurses, school counselors and principals.

“We used national level resources to interpret for our school leaders what changes and procedures would be needed for reopening,” said Kelly Branaman, Secretary for Catholic Schools and Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, who was also a member of the task force. “We consulted experts nationally and then interpreted what that would look like in our schools.”

Catholic elementary and high schools and early learning centers throughout the archdiocese worked with their staff, parents and pastors to devise their own opening plan. Three opening models were offered to schools: distance learning, in which all learning and formation takes place virtually; blended learning, which combines distance and in-person learning; and modified classroom learning, where schools and early learning centers are open for in-person instruction with preventative safety measures in place.

In addition to those three options, the Catholic Schools Office also offered a “Temporary Transfer Program.” In this program, parents who would prefer distance learning only for their child could work with their school principal and the Catholic Schools Office to transfer to a school offering virtual instruction full time until the parent is comfortable returning to in-person instruction.

About 26,000 students attend classes at 91 archdiocesan and independent Catholic pre-kindergarten through high schools located in the Archdiocese of Washington. Of the Catholic schools in the archdiocese, 28 percent are following the distance learning model, 49 percent chose the blended learning model and the remaining 23 percent are following the modified classroom option. 

“We as a team gave reopening guidelines to principals who then created their own local task force to determine which one of the three models worked best for them,” Branaman said. “We believed in giving schools that local choice because our schools have different needs depending on their community, and our families had different needs and we also had different size enrollments and different size buildings.”

The task force, in its opening framework report, noted that each school “utilized information and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, National Association of School Nurses, and state health departments as a part of planning to develop protocols for students and staff to promote good health and safety,” and that each school “obtained support from their individual communities by engaging staff, students, families, and community partners in planning for the 2020-21 school year.”

“The health and safety (of students, teachers and staff) guided everything we did because, of course, this pandemic is a health issue,” Dillon said. “The CDC had precision tools that had to be in place for us to even consider reopening. That was a good starting point for us, but it was changing all the time. As the protocols changed, we kept up with them.”

Both Dillon and Branaman stressed that as the task force worked to ensure the safety of those returning to class in the fall, they also felt a responsibility to maintain the Catholic identity and academic excellence of those schools.

“We spent a significant amount of time on Catholic identity because no matter what the mode (of reopening), we wanted to make sure we all pray together in the morning as we always do,” Dillon said. “Catholic identity is just as important as teaching math or science. The fact that we pray together, we are one, was an important part of this plan.”

She added that the reopening plan created by the task force “was very well thought out as to who we are as a school community, and keeping our mission and our Catholic identity.”

“The task force had distinct elements – health and safety operations, Catholic identity and academics. We had the goal of maintaining our traditions, such as prayer and community building,” Branaman said. “The intention was to continue those traditions whatever the reopening model” chosen by a school.

Every aspect of reopening the schools for the new school year was considered by the task force. Branaman noted that the team even looked at how to keep parents informed of what their school was doing, remapping carpool pick up and drop off lines and configurations of classrooms.

“The nature of how we would close out the school year and plan for the reopening of a new school year literally took hundreds and hundreds of hours,” Branaman said. “The beginning of any school year is always challenging – there is tons of work involved in any given year – and to have the pandemic as a layer on top of that has meant many hours beyond measure spent by our pastors, principals and teachers to ensure the reopening of our Catholic schools.”

Dillon, calling the task force’s work “a major collaborative effort,” also praised local schools for their efforts to determine how to safely reopen.

“I have so much respect for how our principals have moved with such grace through this whole process. They care about their communities and want them to stay safe and healthy and open,” she said. She also pointed out many teachers spent their summer months participating in professional development to meet the demands of the changed learning environment.

Branaman also noted that the task of reopening Catholic schools this fall involved “a major team effort.”

“Everyone has risen to the occasion, and I believe has done an extraordinary job,” she said. “In the Catholic Schools Office, everyone has assumed greater responsibilities, and in our schools and early learning centers, they pulled together to address the topics and issues that needed to be addressed in order to reopen.”

Both school officials stressed that since the schools have reopened, the work of the task force is not complete.

“We’ve already revised our reopening resources. They might be slight changes, but they are important for our principals,” Branaman said. “We are constantly monitoring and being informed … and when those changes are made known to us, we make them known to the principals.”

Dillion said that the work of the task force “is not a ‘one and done.’ We are certainly always available for any calls or questions.”

As students who left their schools in March are now returning, Branaman said “there has been joy in reopening – joy in our principals, joy in our teachers and joy in our students. What anyone who teaches loves about it is the energy and joy of returning to school.”

“I am excited about opening the school year,” Dillon said. “It’s good to have the schools back. They (teachers, students and principals) are happy, and we are happy.”