Student ambassadors standing on the curb outside Mercy High School in Omaha greet freshmen on Aug. 14, their first day of school. Looking at the camera from front are senior Ellee Houghtaling and sophomores Megan Riesberg, Martha Barrera-Pliego and Lolah-Belle Bunche. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

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Catholic schools find many ways to safely resume classes

“Back to school” has taken on a variety of meanings for Catholic school students across the archdiocese.

For some it has been returning to a school building, prepared for 100% attendance each day. For others, it’s been having half the student body present at a time, alternating days. For others with special health concerns, it’s meant learning from home with online classes.

But for all students in the archdiocese’s 70 Catholic schools, this year’s return to school is unlike anything they’ve experienced in previous years.

“It’s weird that we left school last year with so little coronavirus cases, and now we’re going back to school with so many,” said Carolyn Klein, a senior at Mercy High School in Omaha and student body president at the all-girl school.

“But it’s also very necessary,” she said. “If we had a full year online, girls wouldn’t be prepared for college, freshmen wouldn’t know what high school is like. So I understand that it’s very important that we go back in person.”

Teachers and administrators spent months planning how to get back to classes while keeping everyone safe during a coronavirus pandemic with evolving risks and restrictions.

“It’s a challenge for us to navigate,” said Vicki Kauffold, archdiocesan superintendent of schools. Educators have been leaning on local health professionals, government officials and public school partners for advice, looking specifically at the needs and circumstances of their individual school communities, she said.

Some schools have room for students to spread out and avoid risk of infection. Some are in areas with greater rates of infection. A variety of risk factors have played into decisions on how to best reopen, and schools have responded with a variety of plans.

Rural schools have been better able to reopen with all students in attendance, Kauffold said. Urban schools’ reopenings have ranged from nearly full attendance in school (with exceptions for special health concerns) to a “hybrid” plan which combines in-school and at-home learning, while others have delayed openings until the end of the month.

Jennifer Dunn, principal of St. Francis School in Humphrey, takes the temperature of first-grader Brylie Reigle as part of the screenings school staff have done to prevent the spread of COVID-19. TINA SCHUMACHER/HUMPHREY ST. FRANCIS HIGH SCHOOL

The schools “go with the best information they have,” Kauffold said, each led by a leadership team that evaluates their situation.

Mercy went back to school beginning Aug. 13 using a hybrid plan. Students with last names starting with A-L alternate in-school learning days with students in the M-Z range. Wednesdays are online only, while the school building gets a thorough cleaning.

Masks are to be worn in school, and students are supposed to keep at least 3 feet apart.

“There are a lot of safety precautions going into it,” Klein said, “so I’m fully confident that I will be safe and healthy at Mercy.”

Grade schools in the Omaha Catholic School Consortium postponed their reopenings until Aug. 31 and plan to open with full attendance.

The consortium has been monitoring information from the Douglas and Sarpy County health departments and getting guidance from the archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office, remaining flexible for inevitable changes, said Mike Goetz, executive director.

“We fully expect to adjust our plans,” he said. “We’re hoping for no sickness,” but are prepared to respond if COVID-19 spreads, he said.

Students at Scotus Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School in Columbus returned to in-person learning Aug. 13, wearing masks and taking other precautions, Jeff Ohnoutka, school president, said.

Parents are expected to check students for symptoms each day, and staff are to perform similar self-checks. Attendance policy has been relaxed, to encourage students to stay home if necessary, Ohnoutka said.

Students at Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue began returning to school Aug. 11, with the full student body at the school on Aug. 13.

If health conditions worsen, the school would be prepared to move to a hybrid plan of half the students present on alternating days, said Dorothy Ostrowski, school president.

“Our first consideration has to be the health and well-being of our school community,” she said.

Hand sanitizer is abundantly available at Gross and 6-foot social distancing spaces are marked out where needed. Plexiglass divides school offices. Schedules have been modified to stagger students’ lunch periods.

The high school surveyed parents a few weeks before school resumed and found that 85% wanted school to start at full capacity.

Parents have expressed concerns and anxieties, but have not been critical, Ostrowski said. “I’ve been grateful for their understanding.”

“Nobody has any clear answers,” she said, “and we’re all just trying to navigate through this situation.”

St. Francis Elementary and High School in Humphrey reopened for full attendance Aug. 12. Staff were to screen students by taking temperatures and asking health questions. They’re required to wear masks if they’re within 6 feet of anyone.

Smaller numbers at the rural school allow for physical distancing, Principal Jennifer Dunn said.

Students stay in smaller groups, called cohorts, to minimize potential exposure to the coronavirus. And cleaning and sanitizing is done throughout the school day.

The pandemic has presented challenges for everyone, Gross’ Ostrowski said. But Catholic school communities have extra resources to help.

“We can turn to our faith and pray for some strength and support,” she said. “And it’s incredibly helpful.”

Father Michael Grewe, pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in Omaha, expressed his thanks publicly in the parish bulletin to school personnel after classes resumed at the parish’s school.

“I want to THANK everyone who worked so hard to make this opening of school happen,” he wrote. “First of all, thanks to our maintenance crew for preparing the rooms and keeping them not only clean, but sanitized every day. … Thanks to our teachers for preparing themselves for the new methods they will need during this special time. The pandemic has added a whole new layer of work and responsibility that they have never had before.”

Father Grewe also thanked Principal Julia Pick and concluded with a prayer: “We now ask our loving God to protect our school and keep everyone safe from the virus. By working together we will certainly do our part to make this a safe, healthy school year. God bless all of you.”