John Dols was named Holy Family Catholic High School’s second principal March 1; an official start date coinciding with the 2020-21 school year. Little did he know, two weeks into his transitional period, COVID-19 would send students home for the final two months.

An assistant principal at the Victoria school since 2006, Dols prepared for his new role this summer with “how can we” approach rather than a “why can’t we return to campus” thinking.

“For me, there’s a sense of ‘There’s so much to do; how are we going to do it, how are we going to keep it safe?’ But my wife really instilled in my head, ‘You’re in a good spot. You’re ready to be flexible.’ There’s not a should-have-been, or this is how I always did it. I’ve never done it. In reality it might be a good thing. There has to be a readiness to make quick decisions and say we’re going to try this for as long as it works and then if we have to, we’re going to change,” Dols said.

HFCHS will open its doors to on-campus learning for classes on Sept. 8 with a Monday through Friday schedule. Orientation by grade levels is set for Aug. 31-Sept. 2 with all students in the building on Sept. 3.

The 9-12 high school will use a block schedule to reduce the number of hallway interactions in passing times.

The expected student body is close to 470, an increase of roughly 90 or so students from a year ago. Some of the increase comes from a smaller 78-student Class of 2020. But a 120-student freshman class is approaching 150 now.

“It’s simple math. The governor talked about numbers being the starting point for your county. It’s not an equal sign. If Chaska or Chanhassen are in that hybrid model, the reason for that is to keep the student numbers down, keeping COVID at-bay. At Holy Family, we’re a huge building. Our numbers are less small than we were previously, which is a good thing. We look at the size of the classrooms, the cafeteria, the gym. We looked at all of that before deciding,” Dols said.

Over at Southwest Christian High School in Chaska, enrollment has increased to more than 400 students for the 2020-21 school year. The first time in school history that number has been reached.

It’s been a busy few weeks for Director of Admissions Barb Rengel.

“It’s clear a number of parents really want to see their high school students in school,” said Leslie Robertson, SWCHS director of development.

“We have a lot of transfer students. We made sure of our clear requirements. We are private, Christian school that is Christ-centered. We stand firm on the discipleship model,” said Marketing & Communications Director Emily Robertson.

By utilizing an eight-period block schedule, in which a student will be in a class twice a week, class sizes decrease from 20-to-25 students roughly 15-to-16, Emily Robertson said.

BENEFITS IN SIZE

President Michael Brennan, in a letter to HFCHS families, outlined the benefits to the school campus.

“Our class sizes mean we can achieve social distancing while still teaching and learning in person. Our 72-acre campus, 176,000 square feet school building, and wide hallways and stairwells provide ample space as needed. Our front entry security doors and check-in policies allow us to closely monitor those who come and go to and from our building,” he said.

Other safety and health measures include students entering the building through the front, A-wing, or bus lobby doors where a screening will occur before entering. HFCHS will employ screening kiosks supervised by school staff at each entrance. Spacing of six feet or more will be required of those waiting for screening.

Two teams — an educational programming design team and a facility and behavioral compliance team — comprised of administrators, teachers, and experienced legal and industry professionals, used every resource available to be innovative, intentional, and measured in the planning to return to campus this fall.

Dols participated on both teams and saw great collaboration among administrators, faculty and outside advisors, which included SourceWell Technology, SevenHills Cleveland Benefit Partners Human Resources, and Cargill Environmental Health and Safety.

“The ideas that came out. What if we did that and did this, it could look like this and make it work coming up with different plans so we could ready in the class or be ready if we have to jump online. Early on we decided on block schedules and every member went out and talk to five or six or seven teachers, asking them what they thought. When it came to the technology piece, having their expertise, their knowledge, was so valuable,” Dols said.

Additionally, students with study halls in the first and last blocks of the day are not required to be in school. Large assemblies such as convocation and lunch will also be modified.

FOLLOWING THE ROAD MAP

SWCHS invested in finishing unused space in its expansion wing, adding more classroom space. Four large spaces have been set aside for larger class sizes. These spaces may also be used for students during their open hours as available.

“We had published our Return to Campus Road Map before July 4. We had different plans ready, we just needed to wait for Gov. (Tim) Walz’s back-to-school plan that came out at end of July. The only addition we had to make from our original plan was adding masks,” Leslie Robertson said.

“(Head of School Dan Beckering) was on about 100 Zoom meetings with private schools from around the state and country, meeting and sharing ideas about getting students back in the building. Our Return to Campus plan is not something we created from scratch,” Emily Robertson said.

A committee of around 10 members, which included the school nurse, parents, teachers, and administrators, met throughout the summer to develop the learning plan.

Emily Robertson said all campus space will be used. Classes that require less technology, such as Bible or English, may meet outside at times. The school has also rented heavy duty tents for all of the lunch programs to be outside. A back-up plan for inclement weather, and winter, will be held in the gymnasium.

“It’s a lot of adjustments, but it’s something everyone wanted. Our teachers really wanted to be in-person in the building. I think that’s something our community needs to understand. We’ve had two weeks of workshops with them. It’s very overwhelming. It’s a huge sacrifice taking on one extra class with the block schedule. We need to show a lot of gratitude for our faculty. They are the heartbeat of our school,” Emily Robertson said.

Mondays are no longer a traditional day at SWCHS. They are built-in e-learning days. A “reset” for teachers of sorts. Additionally, the late-starts on Wednesday and Friday are a thing of the past for students for the 2020-21 school year. Each day begins at 8 a.m. now.

Leslie Robertson said a majority of the open periods for students are at the beginning or the end of the day, so students are not required to be in school for them, thus helping the stagger at entry and exit of the school day.

INVESTING IN TECHNOLOGY

Both at SWCHS and HFCHS, all instructional classrooms have been outfitted with cameras and microphones so that students with extended absences can virtually attend class.

“We know there’s going to be students at home with a sore throat or a fever, and with this new technology, they’ll be able to look in and listen with each of their classes in real-time. It’s very exciting,” Leslie Robertson said.

“If a teacher has a mask or shield on, will they be able to be heard well? We have a speaker system where the microphone connects around their neck like a necklace that projects to the classroom, and also to kids who are at home, those unable to attend, through their computers,” Dols said.

Both schools agree, even if a distance or hybrid model is needed, because of this technology, they are better set up than they were last spring to continue teaching in a normal classroom setting.

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