St. Mary’s Elementary and High School decided to zig while everyone else is zagging. Their reopening plan consisted of having every student back in school on a full-time basis and, for now, everything seems to be going to plan.
The architects of the master plan were high school Principal Gerard Buckley and elementary school Principal Sarah Griffin, along with a task force. St. Mary’s also hired Perotta Consulting this past summer, a consulting firm that specializes in threat mitigation and emergency operation planning, to help create and form their reopening plan for the school year.
“Our first move was to identify key personnel who would make up our ‘task force’ in collaborating on important reopening decisions,” Buckley said. “Our joint task force included members of administration, facilities management and our health staff. When we explored reopening, we discussed everything from an alternate days schedule, a hybrid model, to shortened days removing lunch and large gatherings, to full remote and then our current plan: in-person instruction for all who requested such. A survey of our community further solidified this need for full, in-person learning. We extensively evaluated our facilities and realized we could safely manage the entire N-12 student population on our campus. It was at this point that we also hired a consulting company specializing in pandemic threat mitigation to do a building survey and assist in the writing of our reopening plan.”
When St. Mary’s finalized their plan to reopen, they communicated with parents through email and also Youtube Live sessions that provided a way for parents to ask direct questions to administrators. They also appointed a COVID coordinator so parents know who to contact if they have any questions.
St. Mary’s has seen an increase in enrollment this year, due to two Diocese of Rockville Centre schools shutting down and also the attraction of providing in-person learning for all students. This has been a challenge, an increase in population with the same space provided while also trying to keep students 6 feet apart as the state mandates.
“There has been an increase in enrollment at St. Mary’s. Families are confident in the safety measures we have put in place and value the Catholic Liberal Arts Education we can provide for our students,” Griffin said. “Our elementary school has seen the largest increase, and a fair number of students have joined the high school as well.”
To deal with reduced class sizes, their smallest cohort being seven students and largest being 19, and increased enrollment, St. Mary’s has hired 12 new staff members. They are currently working on enlarging their substitute teacher pool. Students also had the option of going fully remote, which they can decide upon quarterly.
“In both the high school and elementary school the class size is based upon maintaining proper distancing,” Buckley said. “The high school is utilizing larger spaces such as the gym and auditorium, and even the turf field. The elementary school has converted unused space into classroom space to open up more sections and reduce normal class sizes, or in this time, referred to as cohorts.”
St. Mary’s has made it mandatory for all students and staff to wear a mask while on campus. In fact, it is now part of their school uniform and students have been given a St. Mary’s edition face mask. Mask breaks will occur throughout day at the discretion of the teachers and also during lunch breaks and scheduled outdoor breaks for the students.
“All students remove their mask for lunch where the tables are spaced at least 6 feet apart. In N-5 classrooms, students eat in their classrooms, again spaced 6 feet apart,” Griffin said. “In classrooms the teachers provide breaks, alternating rows for breaks and setting timers for students to switch. Whenever an in class mask break occurs, the distance from the person removing the mask in addition to those keeping the mask on must remain 6 feet.”
While none of this is normal, compromises and changes were needed to get students fully back into school. St. Mary’s currently has their fall sports practicing, which is normal, but only time will tell when school can be what it once was.
“Each day that we are in school together is truly a blessing considering the extended school closure we all experienced in the spring,” Griffin said. “Teachers and students alike are enjoying being together and learning while embracing the new challenges of the school year.”