As public school districts have wrestled all summer with tough decisions on how to start the school year, private institutions have forged ahead.
Shakopee Area Catholic School and St. Michael Catholic School in Prior Lake will have students in the classroom this fall. Both schools are opening with many COVID-19 precautions in place, but feel the best place for the students to be is in the classroom.
"I have met with each teacher this summer and asked if they feel comfortable returning for in-person learning," St. Michael Principal Sue Kerr said. "The answer has been a resounding yes. We know we need the honest compliance of every school family with our safety protocols if we are to remain open successfully and safely.
"We are all dedicated to doing this because our school is important for the spiritual, academic and social-emotional development of our children," Kerr said. "What better reason is there than that?
SACS Principal Julie Moran said making sure teachers, staff and students were comfortable in the classroom was a top priority. From there, it was matter of meeting the "physical, social, emotional, spiritual and academic needs of students during this pandemic," she said.
SACS has an enrollment of just over 500 students, while St. Michael has 275 with 55 preschool children in the building.
Moran said there's been an increase in interest in her school, but with limited space available in some grade levels. But SACS has the ability to open additional sections for a grade that is full.
"We have always been proud of the dedication of teachers and staff at SACS, and this year is no different," Moran said. "We encourage our teachers and staff and students to rest and rejuvenate over the summer. We have also noticed an increased interest in professional development from our teachers this summer.
"SACS provides funds for teachers to take classes and teachers have been utilizing these funds this summer as they prepare to teach this fall," Moran added.
Why are private schools seeing an increase in enrollment and opening with in-class instruction? It helps they are smaller than many public schools districts.
The pandemic has forced some families to work from home. And that can be difficult with younger children in the house. But some parents don't have that luxury, and school is needed for the kids during the winter months while they are working.
"Our enrollment K-8 is a moving target right now," Kerr said. "We have seen increased numbers, and have added sections at several grade levels to keep the students safely distanced in the classrooms. Most of our classrooms can safely distance about 16 to 18 desks."
Kerr said many COVID-19 guidelines are in place at St. Michael to ensure the safety of the students and staff.
- Small classroom cohorts for safe distancing and less exposure to mixed groups.
- Seating arrangements for distancing, and facing the same direction.
- Cleaning and sanitizing of classroom and school surfaces.
- Hand washing breaks.
- Teaching respiratory etiquette.
- Limiting foot traffic in halls.
- Changes in routines for lunch and recess.
- Cohorts for Mass attendance.
- Teachers rotating in middle school rather than students.
- Taking learning outside as often as possible.
- Adjusting air circulation and filtering.
"I understand this isn’t possible with a large public district," Kerr said. "They have many buildings to consider, a greater number of children and families to serve, and a many more faculty and staff members. St. Michael is family. We know each other. We trust each other, and we all dig in to get things done — just like all families."
SACS and St. Michael are two of 79 schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, along with St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Savage and Jordan and Guardians Angels Catholic School in Chaska.
The schools take direction from Archdiocesan Office for Mission of Catholic Education, which had a task force of experts who created a Pandemic Preparedness Response Plan for its schools leaders to follow.
The template offers guidance and research in thinking through four domains to open schools safely. They are:
- Promoting behaviors that reduce the spread.
- Maintaining healthy facilities.
- Maintaining healthy operations.
- Communicating, training and educating.
"We rallied a team of leaders to help us carefully work through creating our own Pandemic Preparedness Response Plan, using the template," Moran said. "Our team consisted of our maintenance team, our nursing team, teachers, school administration, school staff, and parents of students.
"We began planning in June and completed our preparedness plan by late July," Moran added. "As we put our plan in place, we felt we could offer in-person education responsibly, while also offering a distance learning option for families who felt the risk of returning to school was too great."
Moran said the plan was communicated to parents via email, virtual meetings, and being available to answer questions.
"We also offer an excellent distance learning option for students," Moran said. "We have planned and invested in our distance learning program, so that students can move between distance learning and in-person learning as needed throughout the school year."