More than two months into the school year, St. Agnes Cathedral School is settling into a groove in an uncertain time. With roughly 575 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, the school has been providing full-time in-person instruction, and so far, officials say, the school year is going smoothly.
“The children are resilient, are adapting,” Principal Cecilia St. John said, “and they love being back in school.”
Like the public schools, the reopening plan at St. Agnes followed State Education Department and Department of Health guidelines. Writing the plan over the summer wasn’t difficult, according to St. John, but the guidance changed on classroom setup requirements, which made preparation more challenging.
“There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” St. John said, adding, “especially tears.”
To get students back into classrooms, with an average of about 18 students per class, each classroom had to be measured so that desks could be spaced six feet apart. Reconfiguring the classrooms — moving nonessential equipment like bookcases and tables into storage — took two days. The state decided late in the process that kindergarten classes would need desk barriers, which had to be purchased. “The timing was ridiculous, because then it changed again,” St. John said. “Still, it provides a double layer of protection.”
The biggest undertaking, she said, was buying iPads for all the students. Previously, the school had provided devices only for grades six, seven and eight, but after the closure in the spring, school officials decided to get them to everyone. The devices were on back order for weeks, but luckily they were delivered before the start of school, and St. John said she enlisted staff members and teachers to help prepare them by downloading apps, sanitizing cords and cables and organizing a distribution schedule for parents to come and pick them up. Remote learners had iPads by the start of school, and everyone else had them by the first full week of classes.
“Being able to provide iPads to all children is what I’m proudest of being able to accomplish,” St. John said. “We didn’t want to lose the opportunity to continue educating our students if the school has to close and we’re all quarantining again.”
Though the majority of students are in the classroom five days a week, 44 are on a remote learning schedule. At the beginning of the school year, St. John said, she asked parents what schedule they preferred, and she has stressed that they have one opportunity to change their mind over the course of the school year.
“They can switch once to remote or once to in-person,” she said, “but I ask them to make that decision and then commit. We can’t be hybrid, for continuity.”
For those in school, the experience is a different one. Students and staff are required to wear masks all day, and social distancing is required in the cafeteria and on the playground. When students enter the lunchroom — which has partitions, air purifiers and fans to help circulate the air — aides sanitize their hands. The lunch tables have Plexiglas barriers, and the tables are sanitized between lunch periods.
During recess, students must stay with their homeroom and are assigned to different sections of the playground each day. However, St. John said, there are “mask-free zones” where they can sit or stand in squares six feet apart and take their masks off. “We’ve really tightened up on the cohort rules this week, as we’ve seen the [Covid-19] numbers going up,” St. John said last Thursday. “We’re being vigilant.”
The school also has safety measures in place as students enter the building. Members of the school’s Fathers’ Club helped revamp the morning drop-off by incorporating the Covid screening app into the routine, St. John said. Parent volunteers check the app as students arrive, while others direct traffic. Teachers are stationed at each entrance, and give hand sanitizer to students as they enter. “It’s extremely organized,” St. John said. “It was a monumental task to implement, and it’s great to see that it is now working.”
The school did have to quarantine one grade for a day, and the state Department of Health and school nurse conducted contact tracing. But because relatively few students were involved, it was “an easy case” and everyone was cooperative, according to St. John. “The DOH was pleased with our setup and the fact that we have seating charts and wear masks,” she said. “Luckily we’ve had no further cases.”
When schools shut down in the spring, she said, St. Agnes did have to address its curriculum map. This year, the Catholic schools within the Diocese of Rockville Centre have implemented a new curriculum, called iReady, and St. John said that benchmark testing was completed last week. Teachers assessed the gaps in learning, and will use the data to guide instruction and create individualized lesson plans. “I’m thrilled with the program,” she said, “and the directed lessons will help keep the high-performing students challenged.
“It’s all worth it,” St. John added. “Being in school and learning full-time is a better method. Last spring we were in crisis mode, and I’m glad we’re back.”
Kim Shaughnessy, of Rockville Centre, a member of the St. Agnes school board, said she has been impressed with the school’s operations during the pandemic, even this spring. Her son graduated from eighth grade in June, and her daughter is in fifth grade. “I recognize the difficulties in finding a safe way to educate and keep children in school,” Shaughnessy said, “but I’ve been very impressed by the proactiveness of St. Agnes. They had a plan in place within a week of the shutdown. The children were online, doing their work, and I didn’t feel like we missed a beat.”
Throughout the summer, she said, she was pleased with the communication and the plan for this year. “It shows such tremendous heartfelt dedication and commitment on the part of the staff and faculty to the children and to education,” she said.
The Rev. Michael Duffy, who joined the parish as rector in August, said he, too, has been impressed by the school’s response to the pandemic. “They worked really hard over the summer, and everyone has been so diligent and following the protocols,” he said. “I’m proud that we’re still able to provide a good, solid Catholic education to these kids, five days a week, and that we’ve adapted to meet the needs of everyone.”