From apprehension to zeal, Catholic school teachers and parents were feeling a variety of emotions as they prepared to resume in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year.

The Covid-19 pandemic — which necessitated distance learning only for the last few months of the previous school year — made preparing to open school doors for in-person learning complicated by safety protocols and tainted by safety concerns.

Recent email interviews with teachers and parents reveal both an eagerness for schools to welcome students back into their classrooms and apprehension — even disagreement — about doing so.

“We are a little hesitant with Covid-19, but know that the school is following the recommendations from the governor,” said Faith Lucas, a parent at St. Paul School in Barton.

“I am supportive of students returning in person as long as protocols are being followed,” commented Danielle Petralia who has two daughters at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington.

As part of the reopening task force, Mollie Bachner, a Rice history teacher, was confident that Rice was taking all the precautions necessary to ensure safety “With Vermont’s current low levels of virus, I think we can open safely. I think Rice has a good plan, and as long as community levels stay low, we should be okay to continue in-person instruction.”

Like any parent, Rice parent Sarah Jones had concerns about the health of her child and family as well as what happens if students need to move back to online studies. “Although Rice did an amazing job with the switch to online learning, I think it is important for the students to be in the classroom with teachers and friends as long as it is safe,” she said.

Susan Guilmette, a teacher at St. Paul School, has a different view: “I would prefer for myself, my students and their families and our staff and their families that we have remote learning. Life is obviously not risk-free, but at this moment in time with so little known about this virus, I believe remote learning is the better alternative.”

Though parents praised their children’s teachers for their efforts during remote learning, many expressed concern for the social needs the at-home learning does not address. “The kids missed the day-to-day interactions with their teachers and their friends. They need to go back to school as much for their mental health as for their academic advancement,” said Chris Messineo, parent of students at St. Francis Xavier School in Winooski and Rice.

 

There are, obviously, safety concerns too. “While I am grateful that we are returning to in-person learning, it doesn’t mean that there is no fear associated with it,” said Colleen Moore, parent of two St. Francis Xavier School students. “My husband and I have had long discussions about what level of risk we are comfortable with. I check the department of health website daily, and we both listen to the experts and discuss their advice.”

Carmen Tarbox, a teacher at St. Paul School, is changing her teaching strategies in keeping with safety protocols. Her students will sit in assigned seats at an end of a table, and they will have their own supplies, own manipulatives and weekly rotated educational toys. Nothing can be shared without disinfecting first.

Another strategy that “may be tricky” is teaching in groups. “It will be more difficult, at least at the beginning, for students to remember social distancing and no sharing. Isn’t that ironic to discourage sharing in kindergarten?” she said. “I will need to think outside the box to keep them focused while keeping safety protocols.”

Eileen Barendse, a teacher at St. Francis Xavier School saw her two children — who thrive in their classroom settings — struggle with remote learning last spring. “The shared energy of a group of students, the animated instruction from teachers, the discussions, the questioning, the struggles and the breakthrough moments, are as much a part of the learning experience as the tasks themselves,” she said.

Physical education and computer teacher and Covid-19 health coordinator for St. Monica-St. Michael School in Barre, Kae Zaino, said a summer camp there for a small group for three weeks this summer was a joyful experience. “Kids sometimes prove to be more adaptable than adults and they got right into the swing of hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing, and I have confidence they will be quick learners during school too,” she commented.

St. Monica-St. Michael parent Marcy Sevi is “more than satisfied” with the planning and communication that has gone into preparing for students to return to school.  “I really cannot say enough about how much I love St. Monica’s.  It is a wonderful environment for my children,” she said.

Lawrence Hanover, parent of two St. Paul’s students, said he has no concerns about his children returning to school because he has “complete confidence” in the principal and staff and the preparations they have made. For his part, he is helping with cleaning the school when possible and ensuring his children’s health before sending them to school.

Moore is trying to stress the positives and make sure to listen to and discuss any fears her children may have. She has tried to make masks fun by giving the children input on fabric patterns and designs. “We’ve been discussing the new protocols with them since the information was released, so they will hopefully be as prepared as possible, and the new environment will seem somewhat less shocking, because they will know, at least intellectually, what to expect,” she said.

—Originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.

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