SPRINGFIELD — When Julia Calderon, 17, walked through the doors of Pope Francis Preparatory School on Thursday, it was a strange yet familiar feeling.
“I was excited to see my friends, classmates and teachers for the first time since March,” said Calderon, a senior. “I was excited to bring home my ceramics projects that had been left behind, gathering dust. I was even excited to put on my uniform again.”
All schools in Massachusetts closed in mid-March, switching to remote learning, due to the coronavirus pandemic. As the new school year approaches, public schools have delayed their starts and will proceed with either remote learning or limited in-person instruction.
But the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield announced this summer it would reopen all of its private schools for in-person learning. Pope Francis, which operates independently from the diocese, had orientation Tuesday and Wednesday and its first day of classes Thursday.
While some parents and teachers have expressed concerns, Head of School Paul Harrington said there are safety precautions in place to create a safe learning environment for teachers and students.
“Of our 370 students, we have about 90% of our student body in-person and the remaining 10% remote,” he said. “We are thrilled to be in a position to reopen safely for in-person learning while also providing a full remote livestream for students and families not yet ready to return to campus.”
The school is handling the remote classes in-house so there is no additional charge for students.
Harrington said communication has been key in ensuring that parents felt safe sending their children back to school.
“From March until now, I think we have done a very good job providing regular, clear, consistent communication to our students and families about our plans, options and expectations,” he said. “It seems that students and families who were ready to return to campus are very happy to have this opportunity, and those who prefer to remain at home also appear grateful for an equal opportunity as well.”
“We have worked hard to develop a plan that allows choice and satisfies the comfort level of all families under these pandemic circumstances while keeping our school mission at the forefront of our decisions,” Harrington said.
The school created a reopening committee, which established sanitation and social distancing requirements based on information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state departments of Public Health and Elementary and Secondary Education.
Harrington said the committee “meticulously assessed all classroom and common area spaces for 6-foot social distancing, conducted surveys, dialogued with colleagues in other schools, developed new cleaning protocols, and outfitted the school with appropriate (personal protective equipment) and signage.”
Robert Brodeur is chairman of the science department and served on the reopening committee.
“I feel we have a very thorough plan in place that takes into account all of the state mandates as well as concerns expressed by our faculty and staff and families,” he said.
He said while some faculty are more concerned than others about in-person teaching, the school is taking as many precautions as possible to keep them safe.
“I think a lot of the concerns people had were early on in this process,” Brodeur said. “We gathered their questions and tried to address as many of them as possible. But of course just like with parents and students there are some staff who are in more compromised circumstances or live with someone who is immunocompromised and are at higher risk.”
Some of the new sanitizing precautions at the school include antiviral disinfectant as well as cleaning wipes and hand sanitizing stations in every classroom.
“Every period, students have to wipe down their desk and chair and everything they touch, so that if a teacher has to change classrooms or the next group of students is coming in they know they are entering a clean room,” Brodeur said.
Lockers have been eliminated since they are too close together. Stairways and hallways have been labeled as one-way to maintain social distancing. Masks must be worn at all times except when eating, but mask breaks have been built into the schedule.
Student movements will be tracked through an electronic hall pass.
“If the bathroom is occupied, that pass will be denied until a bathroom becomes available,” Brodeur said.
The school is not checking student or staff temperatures daily, but everyone is expected to assess how they are feeling before they come to school.
Harrington and Brodeur said there are hybrid and remote learning plans ready should the school have to close due to a state mandate, or if the school administration feels it is necessary for the health of students and staff.
“Decisions to make these adjustments will be based on the daily health and wellness of our students, faculty, and staff and data provided by the state,” Harrington said. “Each week we extract the city and town data released by the state and weight each value for the number of students we have from each town as a function of our total enrollment.”
Calderon said there is no denying that she and her classmates are worried about contracting the virus or infecting someone else.
“I think COVID is a concern in the back of everyone’s mind right now,” she said. “As a student, I’m not so much concerned for myself as I am for my family or any other high-risk individuals I might come into contact with. Despite my worries, I do think that our school has pulled out all the stops when it comes to safety precautions.”
Brodeur said most teachers are excited to be back and are finding ways to adjust their styles to fit in with the new requirements.
“I’m a science teacher, so I have to look at the way I have students conduct experiments,” he said. “We are fortunate enough that each student has their own microscope, but our lab groups may have to be turned into individual projects. We can take kids outdoors when the weather is good and there are many successful activities that can be done indoors that still encourage participation but maintain the social distancing protocols.”
For students learning remotely, technology allows them to fully participate in class, except for hands-on experiments, Brodeur said.
“We use Google Classroom and that has functions that allow students to ask questions, and there is even a bell sound if I am not looking in their direction but they want to get my attention. I will also partner students in class with those who are remote so they can still participate in lab projects in some way,” he said.
Calderon said she had been worried about missing out on all of the experiences that come with being a senior in high school. While the school year may look different than it did for previous seniors, she said she is glad to be back.
“It was really important to me that my last year of high school take place with my friends in a classroom, not alone in my bedroom behind a computer screen,” she said. “After so much time spent in isolation, I think a lot of people came to the realization that despite how often we complain about it, we really do love going to school every day.”