If the school officials in Fairfax County, Virginia, need any tips on how to reopen for full-time in-person learning, they need look no further than the Catholic schools in their own neighborhood, including Oakcrest.
The private school for girls in grades 6-12 welcomed students back into the classroom for five-days-a-week instruction on Sept. 9, employing masks and distancing but not COVID-19 vaccines, revamped ventilation or other items being demanded by teachers’ unions.
Even so, Oakcrest has thrived. All but one faculty member returned. One student and one teacher contracted the coronavirus. The school temporarily quarantined the student’s grade, but otherwise never missed a beat, keeping its doors open, offering multiple sports, even putting on a fully masked spring production of “Antigone.”
“We definitely found it to be doable in our case, given our circumstances,” said Miriam Leon Buono, Oakcrest School associate head of school for operations. “I would not presume to tell others, but I do know that in-person learning has been a great gift to our children, and the faculty has been heroic. We’ve been very successful.”
With the end of the 2020-21 school year in sight, she said, “we’re big advocates for in-person learning, no doubt about it.”
With its 23-acre campus in Vienna, Virginia, Oakcrest has a unique advantage in terms of space, and yet its refusal to shut down for the pandemic was typical of U.S. Catholic schools.
Between 90% and 92% of Catholic schools reopened for full-time in-person instruction where possible, and hybrid learning where state and county restrictions prevented it, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
Association Interim President Kathy Mears said most schools made the decision in June to reopen full time for the 2020-21 school year, and even though “nobody was sure that we could, everyone was going to try.”
They followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, implementing quarantines where needed, offering an online option for students unable or unwilling to return to the classroom, and otherwise navigating the untested coronavirus waters.
“We have had outbreaks and we’ve had schools that maybe had to have a class or a cohort stay home because children were exposed in that classroom,” Ms. Mears said. “The schools themselves have been able to be open and function quite well during this pandemic. It is wonderful to see, and we owe it all to the hard work of our principals and teachers, who said, ‘We’re going to do this and we’re going to do it safely,’ and they have.”
Indeed, the success of Catholic schools, as well as other private religious and non-religious elementary and secondary schools, has done more than anything else to undercut teachers’ unions fighting a return to in-person, full-time learning over health-and-safety concerns.
Few have missed the contrast. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker pointed last year to the reopening success of the Boston Catholic schools in arguing for a return to in-person learning in the Boston Public Schools.
“The Catholic Church is the one following science, and the public schools, who worship at the altar of science — they are basically the flat earth people,” Thomas W. Carroll, superintendent of the Boston Catholic schools, told the journal Education Next.
Ashley McGuire, senior fellow at the Catholic Association, noted that “Catholic schools in all 50 states opened this fall for in-person learning where the local government officials would allow it. And where they would not, parochial schools fought hard for the right to open.”
“Meanwhile, teachers’ unions have taken the opposite approach,” she said in a Feb. 12 op-ed for USA Today. “They’ve fought every effort to get kids back in school and continually moved the goalposts, despite the facts, science and the increasingly loud and unified voice of the scientific and medical community arguing that kids belong in school.”
In Montgomery County, Maryland, Our Lady of Mercy and other private schools sued in August over a health order preventing them from reopening in-person until at least Oct. 1. The county backed down.
Fairfax County schools began returning to the classroom on a part-time basis on Feb. 16, bringing 109,000 students and staff back to their buildings by March 19, but the school district does not plan to reopen for five-day instruction until the fall of 2021-22.
“We are confident that we can deliver on a five-day return for all students in the fall, knowing that, while we can adapt to any situation, in-person learning really is the best option for our students and staff,” said the district in a statement.
While some parents were worried about sending their children back to class in the fall, many have changed their mind after seeing the ability of Catholic schools to avoid and manage outbreaks, said Ms. Mears.
“When we started out, we probably had 18 to 20% of our students enrolled online even if they could be in a school, and now that’s down to about 5%,” she said. “Parents wanted to see, will this work? And so more and more students have gone back, but there are some students who cannot go back because of health reasons and other reasons, and we’re still able to meet their needs, too.”
Why take the risk when large K-12 districts were staying shuttered? “We were looking at the data,” Ms. Mears said.
“We had conversations with the leaders in Ireland and other countries where the children were back in school and they were safe,” she said. “And they were well, and the spread was minimal. So we knew from other countries that it could be done safely.”
She also cited the experience of the Diocese of Dallas, which opened its schools last year to provide childcare for health care professionals and other essential workers.
“That information gave us the courage to say yes, we’re going to try this, but we’ve always said, and we’re living it, ‘If we have children at risk or there’s an outbreak, we will shut down,’ but what we learned is we only have to shut down one classroom,” she said. “We didn’t have to shut down the whole building.”
Ms. Buono said Oakcrest, which is not a diocese school but “guided by the teachings of the Catholic Church,” also offers a “very tailored program for certain girls who needed distance learning,” but they were the exception.
“We firmly believed the girls should be in school. We wanted them to take advantage of the full program,” she said. “We’re not in the business of dumping content on girls, we’re forming them, and they need to be in school to really get that benefit.”
Maureen Ferguson, who has a daughter at Oakcrest and two other children in Catholic and Christian schools, called the return to in-person learning “a total success story.”
“I’ve seen it firsthand because I have three kids in three different schools, and they’ve been five days a week, in-person from day one, the day after Labor Day,” Ms. Ferguson said.
“Catholic school teachers deserve so much credit for being brave enough to be the first back in the classroom.”