The anticipation that normally accompanies the “back to school” season has taken on a different form this fall, as Diocese of Orange Catholic schools prepare for the launch of a school year like no other. As of press time, Orange County is off the state’s “watch list,” so it’s anticipated that schools will resume in-class learning on Sept. 8, assuming that after the 14-day wait period the county’s infection rate doesn’t rise. In either case, the Diocese of Orange schools are well prepared to get back to learning, whether in-class or online, so students don’t miss a step.
Amid continuing concerns surrounding Covid-19, school administration teams from the diocese’s elementary and high schools have been spending the summer developing plans for how they would potentially welcome students back to their campuses for the 2020-2021 school year, as well as contingency plans if instruction remains remote.
On July 1, the Diocese of Orange Department of Education issued a document to give each school site the appropriate guidance needed as they developed their own individual return-to-campus plans, plans that at their core continue to deliver strong academic instruction and faith foundation in a safe environment.
“We wanted the schools to take that umbrella and adapt it to their own sites based on how they would best serve their communities within those parameters,” says Diocese of Orange Superintendent of Schools Dr. Erin Barisano.
Developed in conjunction with information provided by the Center for Disease Control, the California State and the Orange County Departments of Education, and the Orange County Health Care Agency, the guidelines include both criteria that each school must adhere to, as well as suggested criteria for implementation.
The strong desire by families for a pathway to reopen schools can be seen in the results of a May 2020 survey conducted with parents of elementary and high school students within the diocese – 83 percent of the 4,500 responses “highly preferred or preferred returning to the traditional school-day model.”
“Our goal was always absolutely to go back to in-person instruction,” says Barisano.
That path hit a snag when California Gov. Gavin Newsom on July 17 announced that due to a spike in Covid-19 cases across the state, both public and private schools within counties on the state’s watch list, which currently includes Orange County, must start the academic year in an online learning model.
Barisano says that she received “hundreds of emails” from school families urging the diocese to seek a possible waiver allowing school sites to reopen, further supporting the results of the May survey. By July 22, the California Catholic Bishops called for the governor’s office to expedite waiver guidelines allowing for local health departments to grant wavier status to schools for in-person instruction.
On Aug. 3, the California Department of Public Health issued the highly anticipated waiver application, but only for grades TK-6. In response, each elementary school site completed its own waiver, submitted it to the Diocese of Orange Department of Education for review, who then made a single waiver request submission to the Orange County Health Care Agency on Aug. 14.
Due to the waiver process and the desire to allow schools to be as prepared as possible for the new school year, the start date for all elementary schools within the diocese has been pushed to Sept. 8.
High school sites are handling their start dates and distance learning implementation in ways that best fit their school communities. While Barisano and her department are disappointed that grades 7-12 are currently not included in the waiver, she did reference the effort that many have put into preparing for the future return of students and the cooperation seen between departments, parishes and families.
“They’ve not only altered their schedules but have altered the way that they use their space on their campuses,” says Barisano. “This has forced all of us to think very creatively and to work in cooperation with other departments.”
For those families who are not comfortable returning to in-person instruction, but still desire to pursue Catholic education, several elementary schools are offering a distance-learning option. And for school sites that do not, the diocese is providing St. Polycarp Online Catholic Academy for students K-8.
At St. Bonaventure Catholic School, Principal Kim White and her administrative staff developed two learning path options for families – a traditional on-campus, in-person learning model and a remote or “Virtual+” model that provides access to synchronous learning.
A generous donation from a St. Bonaventure alumni family allowed the school to purchase Swivl Robot technology, a microphone and tracking system that pairs with Smart Boards and Zoom meetings for an integrated classroom. These additions meet the needs of approximately 15 percent of their school community that prefers to learn from home, as well as contingency plans for either short-term or long-term campus closure.
Like other school administrators and staff within the diocese, White is hopeful for waiver approval in the near future, but is also prepared to continue providing a level of Catholic education excellence, whether in person or not.
“It takes innovative and new thinking to rise to the challenges in front of us,” says White. “We really have to be so thankful for the blessings we do have.”