It will be a new reality for students returning to class this September, including new protocols like wearing a mask to protect from the spread of the coronavirus. CNS photo/Rick Musacchio

Schools can’t be the same in September

By  John B. Kostoff, Catholic Register Special
  • August 26, 2020

The eagerness that normally greets the opening of a new school year won’t be found this year. Instead of excitement, new friends, greeting old friends and the anticipation of what will come, these emotions have been replaced by anxiety, fear and concern for our children and grandchildren’s future health. 

It was only a few months ago that parents had to observe strict protocols about being able to pick up student items left in the school. Limited contact, sanitizer, masks, gloves, sign in. For many parents concern about learning has been replaced with the larger question: Will my child be safe? Only time will tell, but no one can doubt the reason for concern. 

For parents, it is the worry about how well schools will be able to maintain the protocols in schools. What will happen when we have a case of exposure to COVID-19? What happens when a second wave comes? How long will the schools be closed down if there is a second wave? How will schools protect my child in the elementary level classroom given regular class size has remained the same as in pre-pandemic times while secondary schools have been adjusted? Currently, over 1.6 billion children worldwide have stopped their formal education during this pandemic, so these are serious concerns of all parents and for the worldwide community.

Teachers, principals and administrations have questions not only about the student safety but theirs as well. But educators are saying while they are prepared to put themselves at risk, they are unsure about putting their children, parents and friends at risk with this virus still active.

Parents send their children to school to be safe, free from bullying and harassment, free from discrimination, free from threats like lead in the water, mould and asbestos in the classroom. They expect those who have taken positions of trust in education to put children first, to ensure that their children are not in harm’s way. That goes for all who claim to speak for education.

Many are hoping that decisions are being made based on solid medical information and not based on polling. But lingering doubts persist and that is why some parents may continue to opt for distance learning in the short term.

This is not the first time Catholic schools have had to deal with drastic public health issues. Polio, tuberculosis, whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria haemophilus influenza type B and many other diseases have caused deep anxiety in families. Epidemics prompted quarantines, school closings, limits on public gatherings and economic hardship, so we have been here before. Just as now, those in poverty have been at greater risk of contracting illnesses.

Catholic schools also have the responsibility this fall to make sure that the essential element of Catholic schools is front and centre, namely the creating of a Catholic community and presenting of the Catholic faith throughout all curriculum experiences. As reported by the Andrew Greeley Center for Catholic Education, Pope Francis has said, “Present difficulties have stimulated the creativity and inventiveness” and this has “invited new methods of engagement and ministry.”

We, too, must respond with creative ways to ensure the Catholic nature of our schools remains — opening exercises, liturgies, prayers and teaching all subjects through this Catholic lens of looking at the world.

Catholic schools will also have to ensure that those parents who opt for an online academic approach of distance learning will take care to ensure that the Catholic environment remains, that the Catholic curriculum remains, that the Catholic lens to view all learning remains. The pandemic does not reduce any of the expectations on Catholic schools or their distinctive character of schooling.

Catholic schools will also have to provide opportunities for students to debrief on the pandemic experience. Some students will wear the invisible scars of being in family situations that were not healthy, others will have increased mental health concerns, others will be dealing with hunger and fear, watching parents financially struggle in this new economy of uncertainty. 

If we don’t address these issues, allow for discussion and healing, then we shouldn’t be surprised that these problems will surface in a number of other ways.

We know from research that there will be lags in formal student learning from such a long hiatus from formal schooling. Over the past few months we have seen the strengths and the weaknesses of virtual learning. These lags in student understanding have to be addressed but not in such a fashion that it only increases the anxiety and the fear in our children.

Let us never hear, “well, you are going to have to make up for the lost time.” It wasn’t lost time — it was time stolen from all of us. 

We should expect our schools to concentrate on doing what they do well. We don’t need any “neat ideas” to draw away the attention and effort of those working with our students, no matter how worthy the ideas may be. Regenerating student interest, addressing mental health, social concerns and economic hardships and learning issues will be more than enough for Catholic educators to deal with this year.

Over the course of the closure, we also saw Catholic schools place on hold programs that would normally prepare students to receive the sacraments, so in a non-hurried fashion we need to restart these programs.

Catholic schools also need to address the long absence of people from church. We need to recreate communities of faith, with deliberate intentionality. Our priests need more than ever to be in our schools among our students, listening to their hopes, fears and uncertainties and weaving among these a realization that God has not left us. 

We need to acknowledge in our Catholic schools the heroes in our communities over the past few months, those who went to work in uncertain situations and often don’t get such recognition, such as health care workers, truck drivers, grocery clerks, pharmacists, personal service workers and those who stayed home to help keep the family safe, even at great financial hardship.

We need to acknowledge those who died during this period of isolation, often without the benefit of family or sacraments, and the grief carried by their loved ones. These scars are deep.

Catholic schools have much to return to beyond the basics of this “new normal.” Let us not return to the old normal, but see this as an opportunity. Pope Francis reminds us “the Holy Spirit upsets us because it moves us, makes us work, it pushes the Church” and Catholic education.

The first step will be for people to decide is it safe to send their child back to school and the second step will be to ensure that our Catholic education is responsive, flexible and faith-filled as it greets students on that first day, regardless of the model of delivery. As we steer ourselves and our children through these troubling times, we would do well to remember the words of the poet Nikki Giovanni: “We are better than we think and not yet what we want to be.”

(Kostoff, executive director of the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers’ Association, is the co-author of One Home at a Time and a frequent contributor on education matters.)

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