By Debbie Adams
“When the world stopped in March, Roanoke Catholic didn’t” is the message from Roanoke Catholic School (RCS). After the school closed to in-person instruction on March 13 due to COVID-19, “teachers kept teaching and students in grades PreK-12 kept learning—online, very effectively, without missing a beat.”
“Our teachers did an outstanding job ‘on the fly’ in March—a remarkable job,” RCS Principal Patrick Patterson said. “Learning continued without interruption.”
Now RCS plans to reopen—safely and responsibly on August 25 with in-person instruction five days a week following CDC and local health department guidelines, in addition to those from the Diocese.
About 400 students are expected to enroll in PreK (ages 3 and 4), the lower school (grades K-7) and high school (grades 8-12) with a staff of about 70.
RCS began planning in late spring for the upcoming academic year. A variety of voices were included in formulating a plan for reopening with a task force including administrators, Directors of Marketing, Athletics, and Finance, faculty members, guidance personnel, the school secretary, a representative from the custodial staff, and the board chair, to develop a set of protocols to provide mitigation strategies—including physical distancing, face coverings, hygiene/cleaning, and health monitoring “until a vaccination is available.” They consulted with Dr. Molly O’Dell, the director of Communicable Disease Control for the Roanoke City and Allegheny Health Districts, to determine “best practices.”
On July 8, Patterson shared a “working document” with teachers and staff at RCS, outlining the “Roanoke Catholic School Phase III Reopening Plan” with the expectation that the plan will be updated as new public health information becomes available.
“We are excited to welcome our families back to campus for the start of the 2020-21 school year, while at the same time mindful of the many challenges that lie ahead to safely and responsibly reopen amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Patterson.
“The role of children in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19, remains somewhat unclear and we are learning more every day,” Patterson said. “Employing mitigation strategies can help protect students and staff and may help avoid frequent, and potentially more disruptive, school dismissals and closures.”
Teachers will be trained before school opens on proper hygiene, new safety protocols, and COVID-19 prevention. On the first day of school, all students will be trained as well on hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, use of cloth face coverings, staying home when sick, and physical distancing.
Patterson says RCS has a “heightened sense of dialogue between home and school both pre- and post-COVID,” which will continue.
All staff will be temperature-checked first thing each day. All students will have daily temperature checks conducted by staff before they exit their parents’ vehicles (elementary) or enter the building (high school students).
Those with temperatures above 100.3 will be sent home until they are temperature free for 24 hours. Those with symptoms that mirror COVID will be required to get tested.
To promote physical distancing, classrooms will be modified to maximize the space between students. All extra furniture is being removed.
Extra classrooms and space will be utilized to allow students to spread out and provide some flexibility in class instruction. With all students in grades 2-12 having their own Chromebooks, computer labs can be converted to classroom space.
Lower grades will for the most part remain in one classroom all day long—which Patterson says will reduce cross-contamination.
Social distancing in classrooms will be in place with no less than four feet from one student to another.
Teachers who are unable to maintain a six-foot social distance from students will be required to wear a mask or face shield. Masks are a point of discussion in the lower grade levels where students often need to see a teacher’s lips and facial expressions in reading instruction so a shield might be preferred.
Students in grades 4-12 will be wearing face coverings when they are unable to maintain a six-foot social distance or when they are in communal spaces.
Students in grades three and below will be strongly encouraged to wear masks when developmentally appropriate and necessary.
RCS doesn’t currently offer bus transportation to and from school, so social distancing will not be a transportation issue. Plans have been in the works to add bus services in the 2021-2022 school year for regional students who come from as far as 60-70 miles away.
Art, music, library, world language, and other such classes may take place in the classrooms that are considered “homerooms” for elementary and middle school students to minimize movement, adopting a “push-in rather than pull-out” approach.
Patterson expects the green space at Roanoke Catholic to be used more extensively this year—for more recess time, but also to provide a variety of learning experiences outside of the classroom.
He says RCS is fortunate to have the renowned Peter Radjou as their chef. School lunches will be boxed or bagged each day and placed on tables for students to pick-up, unless they pack their own lunch. They will eat in their classrooms, the gyms, or even outside as weather permits.
Social distancing will be the “first priority to ensure safety throughout the campus.” RCS will not have any gatherings of students or parents over 150 people.
Verified reports of a coronavirus diagnosis of a student or staff member may require that all or part of the campus be closed or isolated for a period of time. If this happens, online courses will be implemented as they were in the spring of 2020.
Patterson has no doubt that 2020-2021 will be another successful year for Roanoke Catholic students. “Kids will pivot and adjust to a new normal; adults need to follow their example.
“Education needs to be face-to-face, but the health piece must come first,” said Patterson. “If there is any question, we will step back and reevaluate. The plan is fluid.”
Patterson said that “a benefit from the COVID-19 interference in education is it led us to examine the way we deliver instruction and made us better educators.” Teachers explored what type of testing was appropriate for online instruction—becoming open to oral tests or just conversations about what was taught. They adjusted the length of assignments, maybe assigning 10 math problems, instead of 20. Teachers and staff increased connectivity to students and families.
RCS stepped up its technology program when schools closed to in-person learning in the spring. Students learned to use hotspots and Chromebooks. Teachers and students logged-in via Zoom for instruction for several hours each day then checked back in at the end of the day to ensure mastery of concepts.
Patterson was especially pleased that students in the senior class were able to complete their traditional Senior Research Projects on a topic of their choosing. The grand finale of the project is a presentation of the projects to their peers and instructors, which they were able to do virtually.
Patterson previously served as guidance counselor and guidance coordinator at William Byrd High School for six years. He is married to Annette Patterson, president and founder of The Advancement Foundation and the Gauntlet Business Program and Competition.
Roanoke Catholic, established in 1889 in Roanoke City, is a regional co-educational Catholic school under the auspices of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond with students from varied socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds who reflect the diversity of the greater Roanoke Valley. RCS has a stellar reputation in the region, with 100 percent of the seniors accepted to college. Students need not be of the Catholic faith to attend—about 20 percent are not.
RCS still has room to accept a few more students for the upcoming school year, more in the high school (which begins in eighth grade) than in lower grades, where some grades have waiting lists.
For more information, visit www.roanokecatholic.com.