- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2020

Catholic dioceses are moving toward reopening their schools amid the coronavirus, with some adhering to state and federal health guidelines but others advocating a more bullish approach for in-person learning.

In a joint statement to parents signed by Wisconsin schools Superintendent Peggy M. Schoenfuss, Bishop James P. Powers of the Diocese of Superior wrote: “What we would like to assure you, is that our schools are planning to re-open in the fall in our traditional face-to-face mode, unless legitimate authorities do not allow it.”

Bishop Powers isn’t alone on insisting to face-to-face learning. In New Orleans, home to 34,000 Catholic school students, many school officials are encouraging a return to in-person learning — unless the city or the state of Louisiana restricts them from opening doors.

“While technological advances have reshaped the lives of our girls and enabled social distance learning, it does not replace the power of human connection,” the administration of Ursuline Academy, an all-girls school in New Orleans, said in a letter to parents last month.

On Monday, administrators in California’s two largest public school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, announced that all instruction would be online only this fall.

But Catholic school students in Los Angeles are set to return to classrooms. Paul M. Escala, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, announced the plan last month, citing a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics warning of increased isolation in students amid at-home learning.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not yet said whether public schools will conduct face-to-face learning. But Catholic officials recently announced that their schools will reopen and that face coverings will be mandatory for teachers and students over the age of 2.

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Palm Beach has announced its 19 schools will reopen, citing an internal survey showing that 74% of parents want their children back in classrooms. Officials will masks for staff and students, and student won’t attend weekly Mass for the first quarter of the academic year.

“Strategic social distancing will be utilized,” said Gary Gelo, schools superintendent for the diocese, said in a letter to parents last week. “For example, elementary students will stay together in one group for most of the day and interaction with other students will be limited.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued guidelines on how to reopen schools with rankings for lowest risk (online only learning) to more risk (a mix of online and in-person learning with small classes) to highest risk (only face-to-face learning with full classes).

In addition to checking temperatures and limiting outsider visitors, the CDC urges social distancing, hand washing, masks and frequent cleaning of surfaces to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

About 50 million children attend public schools nationwide, while about 1.7 million go to Catholic schools. Catholic officials say their schools’ smaller numbers allow teaching opportunities that public schools could not mimic.

“With the smaller grades, we’ll have to move some furniture around,” Robert Lecheler, administrative assistant for the parish cluster of Our Lady of Sorrows in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, said Monday. “The challenging part will be keeping them from hugging each other and doing headlocks and pulling on coats.”

A major impetus for reopening Catholic schools is financial stress, said Kevin Baxter, chief innovation officer for the National Catholic Education Association.

“We definitely suffer from limited finances,” Mr. Baxter said, noting that 135 Catholic schools have shuttered during the pandemic and will not reopen.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, said Friday that more than a dozen Catholic schools in the archdiocese will not reopen this fall due to the economic “devastation” of the pandemic.

Not every Catholic school is moving toward face-to-face instruction. A spokesperson for the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, said in-person learning is “an ongoing topic of discussion,” while the goal remains to “get as many students back on campus for as much time as possible while adhering to the guidelines.”

Meanwhile, Catholic schools officials in Maine announced they would reopen their eight campuses but allowing for an online-learning option.

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