SAVANNAH, GA.- The Diocese of Savannah is preparing to open schools August 10 with each of the 13 schools within the diocese having already submitted tentative COVID-19 safety plans for how they will be preparing students, parents, faculty and staff during what has been an unprecedented past couple of months. Benedictine Military School, Savannah (who will open for classes August 3), Mount de Sales Academy, Macon and St. Vincent's Academy are all independent and will have individual start times. Immaculate Conception, Augusta, the only special needs school within the diocese, will begin classes on July 29. As of Thursday, July 23 start dates for classes at Mount de Sales and St. Vincent’s had not been set.
A Zoom meeting that included Senior Director, Department of Catholic Education and Superintendent of Catholic Schools Michelle Kroll and all 13 principals of the aforementioned parish-sponsored, diocesan-sponsored schools took place Friday, July 17. The purpose being to better get on the same page regarding the upcoming start date. "The schools have pretty much finished their initial plans for reopening," said Kroll during a recent interview with the Southern Cross. She explained that ideas ranging from how to keep water fountains safe for use to using disposal lunch trays have been presented. "We want to reassure parents that we are working to make sure the environments are safe. For me the two most important tasks are a safe environment and letting parents know that we are doing our best to make sure that kids are safe and personnel are safe."
Students are going to be allowed to physically attend school again because there will be less contact with the outside world, and thus less opportunity to potentially spreading the virus. That means less involvement with parents and visitors inside of the school buildings and facilities in most cases. "We want to be sure we are addressing those needs so that we can get back into some type of routine with children, because the truth of it is that we get kids for 13 years, from kindergarten to grade 12, and it's during that type when they learn the life skills that help them function well in society and to be able to navigate those social interactions. If we take away a year that's significant." 12 of the parish-sponsored, diocesan-sponsored schools have a preschool program.
Social distancing will be an important part of getting back into schools as well. Some of the schools within the diocese will have an easier time than others due to their size. Kroll used St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School, Columbus and St. Mary on the Hill Catholic School, Augusta, both big schools in comparison to others, and Immaculate Conception Catholic School, Augusta and St. Teresa Catholic School, Albany, smaller schools with limited space, as examples of how social distancing may not be conducted the same. "Social distancing may not look the same for those larger schools," said Kroll who spoke about moving desks and tables in classrooms around to better honor the six-feet recommendation from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Wearing mask will also be something that schools will consider making mandatory. "We are allowing schools to make that decision themselves," said Kroll. "I'm not going to tell them that they can't make mask mandatory. Aquinas High school, Augusta is starting out with masks, so let's see how it goes. There's just not always an easy answer either way to be honest. So we do our best to make good decisions based on the data that we have and how we understand children to behave during social interactions."
Kroll went on to use examples of how well high school juniors and seniors, upperclassmen may be able to adapt to distance learning better than still developing children in lower school and elementary school. 'The foundational years, the early elementary all the way to intermediate grades, those kids really need to be in school," said Kroll, who is also a mother. "All of the initial data that we have has really indicated that we can do this in a safe way."
According to the CDC there are smaller percentages of children contracting COVID-19 (1.7%) compared to that of adult and young adults in this country. "We want parents to trust us and we want to trust parents," said Kroll. "Because if their child is exhibiting symptoms, please keep them home. That trust relationship works both ways. We trust you to do your part and we're going to do our part."
There is another option however. Though limited, there will be a virtual learning option for parents that don't feel safe sending their kids back to school. "There will be some [distance learning] depending upon the needs of the students and the ability of the school," said Kroll. "It may not be totally online, but there are some online components. The only kids that we will be working with online on a regular basis are those children that have any type of auto-immune deficiency."
According to Kroll the teachers within the diocese are ready to get back to work in the classrooms as well. "I would say that probably the majority, I'd say 90 percent of our teachers are chomping at the bit to get back into the classroom. They understand the value, and they may have some underlying fears but they are willing to set those aside in order to do what they are called to do. I think returning to school is going to be very beneficial to everybody."