Back to Catholic school during the pandemic
After five positive COVID-19 cases, Archbishop Neale School in La Plata transitions to distance learning
Oct 14, 2020
The Archdiocese of Washington said in an Oct. 14 statement that after five individuals tested positive for COVID-19 at Archbishop Neale School in La Plata since Oct. 9, “the principal in collaboration with the Catholic Schools Office determined to move the entire school to distance learning as a safety measure.”
Kelly Branaman, the Secretary of Catholic Schools and Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, said in a statement, “The school worked very closely with the Charles County Health Department and transitioned several classes to distant learning when individuals presented with symptoms. After learning that individuals tested positive, the principal in collaboration with the Catholic Schools Office determined to move the entire school to distance learning as a safety measure.”
In her statement, Branaman noted that “the principal and school staff at Archbishop Neale School have followed established health and safety protocols such as temperature scans, maintaining social distancing, and identifying and isolating a person who may be symptomatic.”
Branaman said the school is currently working with contact tracers to ensure that those who need to be quarantined are fully aware and receive necessary directions and next steps from health officials.
The archdiocese’s Secretary for Catholic Schools expressed gratitude “for the support of the Charles County Health Department, and the Archbishop Neale school community for their supportive of school leadership and teachers.” She said “our thoughts and prayers are with those who have tested positive, we pray they have a speedy recovery.”
In a statement, Linda Bourne, the principal of Archbishop Neale School, said that she and Father Lawrence Swink, the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in La Plata, “made the decision to pivot to virtual learning for all students in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus. The transition was eased by the overwhelming support of our parents and teachers.”
Bourne’s statement also noted, “ Our students and teachers were successful in the transition to virtual learning. We already had a successful and robust virtual platform based on live-streaming of all classes for approximately 35% of our families. We are blessed to have such a strong and dedicated school community that support us and our mission to foster a ‘lifelong commitment to Gospel values, academic excellence, and service to others.’”
Archbishop Neale School serves 262 students in pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade.
About 26,000 students attend classes in 91 archdiocesan and independent Catholic pre-kindergarten through high schools located in the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes Washington, D.C., and the five surrounding counties of St. Mary’s, Charles, Calvert, Prince George’s and Montgomery.
In an interview, Branaman said that about 8,500 students in the Archdiocese of Washington have been receiving in-person learning during this school year, and school officials so far have identified and managed 22 positive COVID-19 cases, and according to their data, none of those cases have resulted in hospitalizations for students or teachers.
Branaman added that in some of the cases, teachers who tested positive for COVID-19 had such mild symptoms that they resumed teaching classes the next day, virtually. She said school officials in all those cases have made decisions, such as whether to pivot to virtual learning, based on guidance from local health departments. Branaman added that the five positive cases at Archbishop Neale School represented the highest number of cases identified at any local Catholic school.
In preparation for the new school year during the COVID-19 pandemic, each Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Washington developed its own reopening plan, had the plan reviewed by the archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office, and resumed classes in the fall in a manner that they determined was best for their local school community.
The archdiocese’s Reopening of Schools Task Force issued a document, “Onward Together in Faith,” to guide Catholic school communities in their reopening plans. That report outlined three possible return-to-school models: distance learning, where all instruction would be offered virtually; blended learning that combines in-person and distance learning where strict health and safety measures are enforced and students and staff are screened daily before entering the building; and modified classroom, where schools would be open for in-person instruction, and where face coverings are required at all times, classroom set-ups provide for social distancing and students and staff are screened daily before entering the building.
Of the Catholic schools in the archdiocese, 28 percent are following the distance learning model, 49 percent utilized the blended learning model and the remaining 23 percent chose the modified classroom option, including Archbishop Neale School.
Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Bethesda, Maryland, temporarily transitioned from a hybrid model to virtual learning for all students after a teacher tested positive Sept. 25 for COVID-19.
A statement from the Archdiocese of Washington noted, “In working with the Montgomery County Health Department, it was determined that all 6th, 7th and 8th students should quarantine until Oct. 8, 2020. A few teachers that were in close proximity of the teacher were also instructed to quarantine.”
After a teacher and student at Holy Redeemer Catholic School in Kensington, Maryland, tested positive for COVD-19 in the first week of September 2020, school officials there immediately implemented a plan to have students in the affected class go into quarantine and move from in-person to virtual learning for a two-week period.
Because of the contingency plan the school already had in place, Holy Redeemer students lost no education time as the situation was addressed. Approximately 375 pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students attend the Montgomery County Catholic school.
Tommy Corrigan, the principal of Holy Redeemer Catholic School, said that once he learned on Labor Day that his school had a confirmed COVID case, “I immediately contacted the (Archdiocese of Washington) Catholic Schools Office, and we got in touch with the (Montgomery County) Health Department, and from there they walked us through” what needed to be done.
He said that due to safety precautions already in place at the school, only the affected class had to go into quarantine. “Because of the way our protocols were being done, the rest of the school would not have to be quarantined,” Corrigan said.
Those protocols include students directly entering their classroom from an exterior door and not using the hallway unless to use the restroom; requiring the use of face masks at all times; classrooms prominently marked with six-foot social distance parameters; larger classes using the school gymnasium and a modular trailer in order to guarantee appropriate social distancing; special subject teachers rotating to students’ classrooms so that students do not have to change and share classrooms; and splitting the rather large kindergarten class into four separate classes.
Both the student and teacher at Holy Redeemer School made a full recovery and they along with the other students in the affected class returned to school Sept. 21.
“This made us stronger, and is proof that our plans and protocols work,” Corrigan said. “We are confident. Of course, we know that should this happen again, each case will be different and will be treated differently, but we know we will do the right thing whatever that may be.”
(Mark Zimmermann and Richard Szczepanowski contributed to this article.)