By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 6, 2020
ATLANTA—Beth Enz saw her rising third grader do fine academically in March when her classmates suddenly were only visible on a computer screen.
Remote learning worked for the self-motivated student at St. Joseph School, Marietta, said Enz, 42, a stay-at-home mom. But she and her husband were reminded how school is more than just textbooks. Something is missed when recess friendships wither and students cannot be face to face with teachers.
When school begins, her daughter is returning to the classroom to be with peers.
It is a gamble. Enz, who worships at St. Clare of Assisi Church, Acworth, believes it is inevitable someone will be exposed to COVID-19 at the school but “I feel in-person school is important and worth the risk.”
“At some point in time, you have to live your life. You can be cautious, but not be stagnant.”
On Wednesday, Aug. 12, many students—from pre-kindergarten to seniors entering their final year of high school—will return to in-person classes in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The schools will be different than the ones they left quickly in the spring when Gov. Brian Kemp ordered schools closed to curb the novel coronavirus. Masks will be required. Groups of students and staff will be together throughout the day, even on the playground, to limit any spread of an infection. Temperature checks will be taken daily.
Many independent Catholic schools will also welcome students back after the extended summer with controls in place.
Pinecrest Academy adopted color-coded guidelines, from a red meaning implementing virtual learning to green, with the fewest restrictions. The school is opening under a yellow sign, in-person learning, with heavier restrictions in place.
The Georgia Bulletin recently used its Facebook page to ask for reactions from parents with children attending Catholic schools.
Thirty-seven parents responded, with students attending four schools. From those responding parents, nearly 57 percent plan to send their children to in-school instruction.
At St. Joseph School, Marietta, parents weighed challenges like balancing work, helping students navigate online learning and wearing masks–all concerns on top of the usual jitters a new school year brings.
Marie Vilmont-Rhea said her family decided to keep her first-grader home despite wanting to send the youngster into his classroom.
Vilmont-Rhea said her elderly mother lives at home and she could not risk her son unknowingly carrying home an illness that could threaten her mother’s health.
“Scared” is how parent Jennifer Payton described the situation. But her two children will be in school when it opens.
“I think they need the interaction with other students but we are still scared,” she said. “We were hoping for a situation where they attend every other day or a few days per week and then do the rest at home.”
Communicating the plans
Dr. Patricia Allen has been the principal of the 420-student school in Marietta for 16 years. She said the school started to put together its reopening in May. Staff worked to make the building safe, from packing up board games to prevent young people from sharing them to stocking an abundance of hand sanitizer, she said. Realizing education is more than curriculum, the school bought see-through masks so students see smiles, she said.
“How do you read a face with a mask on? We’ll teach them that but we also want to show them a smile,” said Allen.
The school shared decisions all summer with parents with the understanding everything can change, she said.
“Everybody is uncertain right now. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a parent or a child or you were an employee. We’ve got to communicate with them all and say here’s our plans to keep everyone safe as we can possibly keep them while they are in St. Joseph Catholic School,” she said.
At Decatur’s St. Thomas More School, Rebecca Bartlett admitted to nerves but is confident with the school’s safety plans. She’ll have children in second, fifth and seventh grades.
“I am nervous, but it needs to happen for better learning and mental health,” she said.
Cathy McGovern had high praise for the school leaders. They are implementing all the correct safety steps, however, with the rising number of infections in the area, it is not the time for her third grader to attend classes.
“We can be a dream-team when we work together,” said McGovern. “This isn’t going to last forever. We all have the same goals in mind.”
Principal Shaun Bland of St. Thomas More School, Decatur, said she’s heard both from parents anxious for school reopening so they can return to work to others questioning that decision.
“We are doing every possible thing we can think of at school in order to make the environment as safe as possible,” she said. “I feel I have 470 kids and 70 staff members, families and groups, resting on my shoulders. I take it very seriously.”
Along with parents, Bland said teachers have shared their concerns. Teachers also want to return to the classroom but want to be sure all the safety precautions are being thought about, she said.
The school spent some $55,000 to get ready, from buying a large tent to cover a courtyard for more outdoor space and additional computers to an abundance of hand sanitizers and reconfiguring the air conditioning to increase the fresh air supply, she said.
Safety will need to be a community effort, starting at home with everyone watching over each other, she said.