By ROB HERBST
The Catholic Week
MOBILE — All facets of life have been impacted by COVID-19, but every Archdiocese of Mobile Catholic School is preparing diligently for the first day of class Aug. 12.
Archdiocese of Mobile Superintendent of Catholic Schools Gwen Byrd provided an update on the upcoming school year and reflected on the past few months.(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q: What have schools done this summer to prepare for the school year?
A: The first step was for each school to develop a planning task force which includes outside professionals in addition to pastors, members of their own staff, and parents. They needed independent voices of professionals that are working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. If not, a school would get too insular. Each task force will consist of at least two subcommittees: Safety/hygiene and Academic delivery/logistics.
Second, each school also had to develop a Coronavirus response plan to three different scenarios: no community spread, minimal to moderate transmission, and substantial transmission.
The third goal is to develop steps to respond to an individual school infection regardless of community transmission. We don’t want to wait until it happens. We need to plan ahead.
Finally, each school needs to develop plans to support the mental health of students and families. Some are going to be nervous coming back. They left us a little scared and some are going to come back more scared.
It’s not going to be easy this year. It just isn’t.
We’ve had some creative examples, everything from alternate days to bringing kids to campus to alternate dropoff times to alternate bell schedules. The schools are getting very creative in how they’re going to approach new ways to think about everything.
Each school needs to develop a personalized plan because each school is different. Each campus is different. Some have smaller student bodies, some have larger. Some have huge classrooms, some have small. It’s allowed them to think outside the box and play to their strengths. No two schools are exactly the same.
Q: What adjustments will all schools have to make?
A: With the exception of Pre-K, everybody is going to have to wear a mask. Everyone will have their temperature taken when they come in. Big schools will do that differently than small schools and they’ll have to come up with a plan. There will be hand sanitizer everywhere and 6-feet social distancing. There’s no doubt it’s going to be hard.
Q: Do you have concerns about the effectiveness of teaching/learning with everyone wearing masks?
A: It’s going to be harder. Right now that’s what they’re saying we’re going to have to do. No, it’s not going to be easy.
Q: Is it plausible to have some in the classroom and some who are distance learning simultaneously?
A: I think it’s very much a possibility. Schools are looking into how to do it should it come up. It’s not a situation going into the year where we know it’s going to happen, but we’re all looking at it. Technology is going to go a long way in this and a number of schools are getting their teachers trained to enhance distance learning should it return.
Q: Will extracurricular activities be possible?
A: Right now it looks like it can be as ordinary as possible, unless something changes. (In regard to sports) we’ll continue to follow AHSAA guidelines. If they say we can do it, we’ll do it. I think if we’re told we have to go back to distance learning, it will affect everything.
Q: Is it fair to say this is the most trying period for schools that you can remember?
A: Absolutely. Other big trying times have been weather-related. We’ve never had a virus of any sort. We’ve had to close schools because of the flu, but never the whole system. Every day was challenging.
Q: Looking back how would you assess how distance learning went this spring?
A: We were thrown into the fire, but honestly I think it went much better than we ever expected. It was a tremendous adjustment for parents. Some of the parents were home too and there was some goodness in that and some hard times as well. Some schools certainly had the equipment to do it in a better way than others, but I will say all adjusted to it and I thought they did a good job.
We also know we had no control of what the child was doing at home, no matter what we did. We did have some people that didn’t do anything.
The second week of school when we go back is testing week. Everybody is going to take the Iowa tests according to their grade so we can assess exactly where we are and see what we need to reteach.
Every school is going to provide some type of tutoring, either one-on-one or small groups, to get students where they need to be. I think by next school year (2021-22) we can catch up if all goes well.
Q: You were at least able to have graduation ceremonies, albeit delayed. How was it attending high school graduations?
A: It was marvelous. All three of them (at McGill-Toolen, Montgomery Catholic and St. Michael) were wonderful. For years and years and years, McGill-Toolen has had its ceremony inside at the Mitchell Center. They decided to have it outside and it wasn’t until 6 p.m. Sunday night (the night before graduation) that the final decision was made to keep it outside. It rained Sunday night, it rained Monday. But the rain stopped in time and when it stopped, it was the most beautiful, cool night. It could not have been better. Everything went well. Then it went well at Montgomery Catholic and went well at St. Michael. They were wonderful graduations.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: God is with us. We know that. He’s going to help us get through it and we have to stay on top of it as best as possible. We’re going to have to do things we’d rather not do. It’s going to be different and we’re all praying for a vaccine. Let me say our principals have remained very upbeat and I am very proud of our teachers. I really am.