In late June, the Office of Maine Catholic Schools announced that schools will be open for in-school learning for the 2020-21 school year, but preparations to safely reopen began at all of the schools many weeks before that announcement.
A staff viewing party last month set St. James School in Biddeford on its current path of being a Maine trendsetter for the many steps it and the other Catholic schools are taking to ensure the healthiest and safest environments possible.
“I watched a webinar with schools in Germany, Denmark, and South Korea that talked about reopening schools,” said Nancy Naimey, principal at St. James. “When school ended, my entire staff watched a webinar from one of those schools in Hamburg, Germany, that had reopened. They showed pictures of what they had done to stay safe. They offered their suggestions and their insights as to what worked, what they should have done, and what they learned.”
Soon after, the St. James staff held a fruitful discussion on how to make the school safe. Suggestions came from teachers, employees, custodial staff, and school families, with many already put in place in advance of September.
“One suggestion that they had was to have the building speak to you with signage, so we have ordered signage to put throughout the building. One stairway will go up and one stairway will go down and we will have traffic flow in the halls meaning students will stay to the right just like if you are driving. There will be colorful footprints to indicate a six foot separation,” said Naimey.
Sanitizing spray to be used each evening, as well as additional cleaning supplies, have been purchased.
Each teacher will have a cloth mask and a face shield, an infrared thermometer to screen students, sanitizer, and window fans to circulate the air.
“There will be two staff members checking temperatures and having a sanitizing station upon arrival,” said Naimey. “Arrival and departure times will be staggered so there can be physical distancing.”
Motivation for safety has led to innovation as well.
“Our facilities manager, Peter Lyons, came up with an idea of putting clear dividers between desks. Students would be six feet apart in all other directions so we would only need this on one side. This would allow two students to be closer and see one another and be more normal,” said Naimey.
Steps like the dividers and small class sizes will enable students in their classrooms to, at times, not wear masks.
“If they are leaving the classroom to use the bathroom, they can put on the mask when they leave their desk and take it off when they are back at their desks,” said Naimey. “A Plexiglas shield has gone up in the office as well.”
To help meet the social emotional learning needs of students, each classroom at St. James will be fully implementing a program entitled the Jessie Lewis Choose Love Movement.
“It’s based on four principles of courage, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion in action,” said Naimey. “We believe this will help students through this difficult time and always to choose happiness.”
A virtual, distance-learning option where interested families will still be able to receive instruction for children in core content areas while remaining connected to their local school community has also been established. This follows a highly successful implementation of remote learning from March to June as a result of the pandemic.
“Our parents rated the remote-learning experience at 4.5 out of 5,” said Naimey.
“Our Catholic schools continued to nurture the souls of our students while providing a comprehensive academic plan, building on their tradition of excellence,” said Marianne Pelletier, superintendent of Maine Catholic Schools. “The excellence was visible in both our attendance data and parent surveys after the remote learning experience. On average, 96% of our students participated daily in direct instruction offered virtually by their classroom teachers.”
The schools overseen by the Office of Maine Catholic Schools are All Saints School in Bangor, Holy Cross School in South Portland, St. Brigid School in Portland, Saint Dominic Academy in Auburn and Lewiston, St. James School in Biddeford, St. John’s Catholic School in Brunswick, St. Michael School in Augusta, and St. Thomas School in Sanford.
If you would like to enroll or learn more about Catholic schools in Maine, visit www.mainecatholicschools.com.