Parochial Schools Welcome Students Back to Classrooms

Published by The County Times on Thursday, September 3

By Guy Leonard

With their smaller class sizes and student populations, local parochial schools have decided to bring their students back into classrooms – either all at once or in a hybrid system that allows for virtual learning – a week before public schools returned to their virtual teaching model.

St. Mary’s Ryken High School Principal Catherine Bowes said Aug. 31 was the first day back for sophomores, juniors and seniors but the week before all the freshmen came in for in-person learning.

First Day Teachers

St. Mary's Ryken teachers greeting students on their first day. 

“It’s gone really smoothly,” Bowes said Monday. “We’ve been pre-thinking this for so long.

“We brought our freshmen back last week; we wanted them here getting used to the campus, getting used to their teachers and each other.”

With the four grades now working in the same space, the school has embraced a hybrid model of instruction with all of the students in the first half of the alphabet coming in on Mondays and Tuesdays and the remainder attending class on Wednesdays and Thursdays; each section not in school will learn virtually using a learning management system called Veracross, which is an equivalent platform to the Schoology system used by the county public schools.

“To maintain social distancing, we have to divide the kids in some way,” Bowes said. “As long as the [Gov. Larry Hogan’s] order stands, that’s what we’ll be doing.” Using a system known as Acendo, which puts a sound bar and camera in each classroom at their campus in Leonardtown, students will be able to see and interact with their teachers while learning virtually.

First Day Boy

Face coverings are required whenever students and staff are on the SMR campus - unless while eating or vigorously exercising. 

The system has not been fully implemented, Bowes said, but it will especially benefit that 20 percent of students who have decided to remain home.

Fridays are left for extracurricular activities that can be done virtually, Bowes said, and it also allows teachers to plan their lessons and other tasks for the coming week.

St. Mary’s Ryken has 650 students enrolled and it is now the responsibility of the students and their parents to ensure they are healthy each day before coming to school.

They have an at-home checklist, which includes taking their temperature and monitoring for symptoms of COVID-19 that must be completed each morning.

We’re working in close cooperation with the county health officer and she [Dr. Meena Brewster] said we just can’t test 650 kids a day; we’d never be able to open the school,” Bowes said. “So, we’ve asked families to take up that responsibility.”

For contingencies, the school does maintain temperature check stations for the few students who do not have the form completed at the beginning of the day, Bowes said.

At Mother Catherine Academy in Mechanicsville, students started last week with early dismissals each day, but Aug. 31 was their first full day.

Nearly all of the school’s 170 students returned to full-time in-person instruction, with a small number choosing to learn virtually, said Principal Anthony Wojt.

Wojt said he was concerned that he and the school staff would have to teach students about social distancing but found they were already well versed in the precaution by their parents.

“They know distancing,” said Wojt. “We’re really impressed with our community.”

Wojt said Zoom and Google allowed for synchronous learning by students and they were able to socially distance with relative ease due to the capacity of the building, which allows at least 100 more students.

But Wojt decided to cut off enrollment this year even though there was increased interest among parents from as far away as Prince George’s County who wanted to get their children into a classroom.

He said he wanted to make sure parents would keep their children at Mother Catherine even if COVID-19 abated.

“I already have a waiting list for 2022/2023 school year,” said Wojt. St. John’s School in Hollywood offered their families the choice of in person learning or to work virtually, said Principal Susan McDonough.

“We’ve updated our Wi Fi throughout the building so teachers could work virtually with their students,” McDonough said. “Some teachers have three platforms; I have virtual learners all the way into kindergarten.”

Of the 225 total students there, 45 have chosen to learn virtually, she said.

Students are tested each day with infrared thermometers when they arrive for class, McDonough said.

“It’s one week down and it’s been going very well,” McDonough said. “It’s been difficult on the teachers… but they’ve been real rock stars.” 

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