Back to Catholic school during the pandemic
As COVID cases rise in Maryland and D.C., Catholic school officials say safety protocols are working
Nov 19, 2020
As the number of persons testing positive for COVID-19 continues to rise in Maryland and the District of Columbia, officials of Archdiocese of Washington Catholic Schools Office say they are closely tracking those numbers, and are strictly adhering to the safety measures they established before schools opened in the fall.
“We are monitoring the metrics as cases rise, but we are confident our established protocols will continue to be successful in keeping our students and staff safe,” said Kelly Branaman, the Secretary of Catholic Schools and Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington. “Due to the diligence in following our opening guidelines and safety protocols, principals, families and our Board of Education have all reported that locally practiced procedures are going well.”
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.
Branaman said about 10,000 students in the Archdiocese of Washington have been receiving in-person learning since the start of the school year, and school officials so far have identified and managed 67 positive COVID-19 cases – three students and three school staff members in the District of Columbia, and 40 students and 21 school staff members in the five Maryland counties that are part of the archdiocese.
Those cases represent less than one-half of one percent of the total number of in-person students in archdiocesan schools. According to the Catholic Schools Office, none of those cases resulted in hospitalizations for students or teachers.
As of Nov. 19, 2020, in the state of Maryland overall, there have been 174,733 confirmed cases of COVID. Of the five Maryland counties that are part of the Archdiocese of Washington, Prince George’s County has 37,581 confirmed cases; Montgomery County has 30,298 confirmed cases; Charles County has 3,880 confirmed cases; St. Mary’s County has 1,185 cases; and Calvert County has 1,430.
In the District of Columbia, as of Nov. 19, there have been 19,678 confirmed cases of COVID.
Chris Buchleitner, the Assistant Superintendent of School Operations and Student Services for the Archdiocese of Washington, said that of the 67 total COVID cases in Archdiocese of Washington, “very few have even exhibited symptoms.”
“The majority of those (affected) students never had symptoms,” he said. “They have been able to continue their work remotely. It is very rare that they have taken time off from their studies. They were isolating, but not missing school.”
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 officials from Catholic schools with positive COVID-19 cases have made decisions, such as whether to pivot to virtual learning, based on guidance from local health departments.
In October, after five individuals at Archbishop Neale School in La Plata tested positive for COVID-19, the school pivoted to virtual learning for two weeks, and after that, the school has returned to full operations.
Both Branaman and Buchleitner said the relatively low number of COVID cases in archdiocesan schools is due to the strict protocols established before the start of the school year.
“Whenever we do hear of positive cases, in the majority of time, they can traced back to some gathering outside of the school and in the home or elsewhere where they are not following the safety protocols,” Buchleitner said.
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.
He called those protocols “very visible … and executed very well.”
Of the Catholic schools in the archdiocese, 28 percent follow the distance learning model, 49 percent utilize the blended learning model and the remaining 23 percent operate under the modified classroom option.
“It was a big hurdle to overcome to put all the protocols in place, but once our principals put those protocols in place and they and their staffs saw the outcome of those protocols, they were very pleased with the results,” Buchleitner said. “We are just so impressed with our school leaders in how they have implemented these plans, and in our teachers who are carrying them out each day as they juggle in-person and distance learning.”
“It is absolutely successful because of our principals’ and teachers’ and parents’ dedication and commitment to the safety protocols that we all worked so hard to establish,” Branaman said. “The numbers tell us it is working.”
Both officials said that there are no plans right now to change any of the ways the schools are operating. “No school has fully reverted to virtual learning or scaled back their in-person program at this time,” Branaman said.
She did note, however, that “some schools are planning to offer only virtual learning the week following Thanksgiving break to reduce potential risk of exposure if families travel.”
“We’ve made some adjustments for holiday travel, and those decisions were made on the local school level,” Branaman said. “What that means is that for the week after the Thanksgiving break, some schools may be going virtual to accommodate those who have traveled or who had family members visit.”