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First cycle of school sessions in Diocese of Wilmington has shown ability to safely operate around pandemic

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Students at St. Peter Cathedral School in Wilmington remain socially distant during a prayer service Sept. 28 for the feast of St. Vincent de Paul. Dialog photo/Joseph P. Owens

How do schools achieve in-person success in a pandemic?

They plan and prepare for everything, work hard and take nothing for granted.

That is how Catholic school administrators in the Diocese of Wilmington say they have almost completely kept a lid on positive transmissions of COVID-19. Of more than 6,000 students and 600 staff in 19 parish and diocesan elementary and secondary schools, 12 positive test results as of early October have been reported to the two states — Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore — that include the Diocese of Wilmington.

About 40 faculty and administrators attended in-person while most tuned in via livestream from the auditorium at Saint Mark’s High School Aug. 31.
Dialog photo/Joseph P. Owens

“It’s a lot of balls that we’re juggling,” said Debra Traum, principal of St. Francis de Sales School in Salisbury, Md., where they have 211 students in pre-K3 through eighth grade.

Traum said the four basic measures encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control will always form the basis of creating a safe environment: Wear masks at all times, social distance, wash hands and complete health screening.

“The only time students really remove their masks is sitting at their desk for a snack or lunch,” she said. “If they’re outside, they’re social distanced.”

Lou De Angelo, superintendent of schools for the diocese, was headlong in summer planning with school leaders and members of the Catholic schools office. He tracks the standards provided in two states and works with school leaders to stay well within the boundaries of protocols.

“People worked a tremendous number of hours at the school level,” De Angelo said. “They had to have local school plans, secure PPE, and just think about all the procedures and routines that happen in a school day.”

Principals from Catholic schools in the Diocese of Wilmington space at a proper social distance and pose with their “Called to Serve” aprons in August.
Dialog photo/Joseph P. Owens

In cases of positive test results, letters with information and instructions are sent home to families. Schools are prepared in the event of a positive test result, which has been seen in a tiny fraction of cases in the diocese thus far. School leaders and educators say they are eager to demonstrate the ability to make this challenging school year work.

Tina Morroni can make it work. And that’s not bragging. The principal at Immaculate Heart of Mary and her school community with 437 students got a significant thumbs-up in late September after a surprise inspection by a state health inspector in Delaware.

The bell at the Wilmington school’s front door rang and the health inspector presented himself.

“He had a lot of questions,” Morroni said. “‘What’s the public plan? Where is it publicized? Do you have PPE? Are there sanitizers?’

“Thankfully, we are living out the plan exactly as we wrote it. Spacing. Signage. Wearing masks full-time, except for snack. He walked the building. He looked at all the classrooms. He said ‘You’re doing everything right. Keep doing it.’ You put all these things in place and it’s good to know they’re working.”

Tom Fertal has the same point of view. He is the principal at Saint Mark’s High School, where enrollment growth and new ideas have been dominating the mindset since he was hired as principal more than a year ago.

Principal Tom Fertal addresses students. Saint Mark’s High School hosted its 50th anniversary opening school liturgy on Sept. 6, 2019. Dialog photo/Joseph P. Owens

“It’s working, is the short answer,” Fertal said.

“There is lots of creativity, a lot of ingenuity on display. Students are definitely appreciative, parents are appreciative.”

“My philosophy is ‘How do we do things in new directions,’” he said. “How can we modify and maybe do things better than we used to? You can make it more personal in many ways. I look at reinventing rather than modifying. It can be more effective if you’re willing to reinvent it.”

Fertal was one of the administrators who dealt with a positive test result in his school community. He said the state traced the exposure to somewhere off campus.

“In no case has there been any worry about transfer in school,” he said. “Any exposure was off campus and apart from the student body.”

The work to keep people from being too close together has been accomplished at the spacious facility at Saint Mark’s.

“Having the space is good,” Fertal said. “We can stretch out in the cafeteria, the gym, theater. We’re using the outside of the campus.

“The faculty is phenomenal. These are people who are experts in organizing,” Fertal said. “They’ve responded well. We’ve gotten them the technology they need, the training they need. They’re supporting and teaching their colleagues. Clubs and activities are doing what they can.”

The routine can be monotonous, especially for little kids, but this year with a summer lead-in and experience that made them much more organized than when everyone was thrown into it overnight last spring, everyone knows what to expect.

“If we’re waiting in hallways, we’re six feet apart,” said Traum. “Desks are six feet apart.”

Victoria Ashlin Kramer put her face mask on after receiving her diploma at the Saints Peter & Paul High School Commencement in June.

Many of the public schools in both states are open with virtual learning only. Every Catholic school in the diocese has some form of in-person learning and they’re also accommodating families that require full virtual.

“It’s a lot of work for the teachers to try to do both in-person and virtual,” said Traum. “We’re doing sometimes live, sometimes accessing pre-recorded videos or online textbooks.

“I have a great technology coordinator,” she said. “We’ve been very lucky. Our parish has been very financially supportive of the church and the school. We’ve been very, very blessed with the support that we’ve gotten.”

“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback. Families are very impressed. We get a lot of questions. They feel we’re doing everything we can possibly do to keep it safe and make sure we can stay open.”

The plan is to keep moving with what is in place and re-evaluate in the middle of October. The Catholic Schools Office and the diocese steering committee determined at the start of school that the first cycle would run from Sept. 1-Oct. 12. The next cycle runs from Oct. 12 to Thanksgiving, De Angelo said.

“Parents are very, very appreciative that we are in-person learning,” Traum said. “We’re settling in now. I want to keep doing what we’re doing.”

“It’s been so many things to think about and plan for to make it go smooth and successfully,” Morroni said. “Just to hear the students talking again and laughing was really wonderful.”

Being a Catholic school, Morroni said educators can reiterate the Catholic identity, caring about others and doing the things that keep people safe.

“The students understand it,” she said, describing an activity in first grade that included the following statement: “I can trust Jesus by keeping us healthy, making good choices and being kind.”

It’s what sets Catholic schools apart, De Angelo said.

“We make our decisions not simply based on state requirements, but the culture of a Catholic school,” De Angelo said. “We’re one faith community and we look out and care for one another as a result of that mandate.”