Kelly Kula teaches a phonics lesson to first-grade students at Omaha’s Holy Name School last November. MIKE MAY/STAFF

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Catholic Schools Office releases plan for fall reopening of schools throughout archdiocese

The Catholic Schools Office on July 2 issued its plan for reopening Catholic schools throughout the Omaha archdiocese next month.

The plan prioritizes full-time, in-person attendance, but allows for other options, now or in the future, based on individual school environments and local health considerations, said Vickie Kauffold, schools superintendent.

“The interaction that our kids have with one another and with their teacher is such an important part of their social and emotional development,” she said. “That’s a big reason why every teacher, every administrator, every educator desires to have their kids back in the classroom, face-to-face with them as much as possible.”

Ensuring a high-quality education for every student was the primary consideration in recommending, where possible, in-person classes rather than remote learning, Kauffold said.

“There’s an equity issue. Anytime that you’ve put kids in a remote learning environment, the circumstances around every kid’s home is going to be different,” she said, based on whether they have adequate remote access, parents’ ability to help them navigate the material, and access to teachers when they need help.

“We want our kids in a place where we can ensure they’re getting all the material that they need and the way they need it,” she said.

The plan calls for each school to determine how to safely open based on its ability to balance four factors impacting coronavirus transmission, as described in guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 1) an indoor environment with normal ventilation; 2) ability to maintain a six-foot distance between individuals; 3) whether masks can be worn; 4) whether close contact for 15 minutes or more is necessary.

Each school is free to adapt its approach based on evaluation of those factors, plus current guidance from state and local county health department officials, Kauffold said.

If full-time, face-to-face learning poses a health risk, other options include moving to alternating morning and afternoon classes, holding classes for different groups on alternating days of the week, or temporary or full-time distance learning.

Education for both students and parents about the coronavirus will be needed, Kauffold said, “to help (students) understand why it is an issue that’s going on right now in the world, help them understand their role in it, and how they can be someone who helps us get past all of it in a very positive way.”

“And we’re really encouraging and educating parents on what they need to do before they send their kids to school,” she said, including temperature checks and verifying that their children are free of symptoms.

The plan was developed by subcommittees made up of Catholic Schools Office staff, school administrators, teachers, facilities managers and technology staff. The subcommittees developed guidelines for alternative scheduling options, instructional practices and technology, grading and assessments, safe and healthy environments, and use of substitute teachers.

The plan also outlines considerations and recommendations for pre-schoolers, elementary students and middle/high school students, whose activities and interactions vary significantly, Kauffold said.

All schools are advised to avoid large group gatherings. However, since a priority is placed on regular Mass attendance as part of a Catholic education, the plan recommends three options, to be implemented in collaboration with pastors: 1) one class attends Mass while others view it livestreamed in their classrooms; 2) different grade levels attend on different days; 3) classes attend Mass on alternating schedules.

Proper sanitation and health practices will be key to ensuring a safe environment, Kauffold said. Schools are currently obtaining supplies of hand sanitizer and masks, plus cleaning supplies and in some cases foggers for daily disinfection of classrooms and materials.

“We are all in a difficult situation,” Kauffold said, “so we need to show charity toward one another, and have confidence in our plan moving forward and courage to face the uncertainty.”