School Superintendent Explains How His District Has Made In-Person Learning Possible And Safe For Thousands Of Students

(Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)

Marlo Safi Culture Reporter
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COVID-19 was a curveball for schools across the world who scrambled to create a plan for students, often shifting learning online.

Many U.S. schools have continued remote learning since the spring, in many cases with limited in-person learning time, citing a lack of precautions put in place that would enable a return. The Diocese of Arlington Catholic Schools in Virginia, however, was able to return most of its more than 16,700 students back to the classroom since July and its superintendent explained to the Daily Caller how coordination between school leaders, teachers, nurses, local health departments and students made in-person learning a possibility throughout the fall. 

Dr. Joseph Vorbach, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Arlington, told the Caller that two-thirds of parish schools were able to fully open with all students back in the building everyday, or in some cases, 4 out of 5 school days. The schools did it by examining how schools across the country and world were able to bring students back in a safe manner that would allow for in-person learning while still observing social distancing rules.

“During July it became clear that it would be possible to reopen the schools within perimeters, so we had at that time been talking with our principals about a variety of things that could happen,” he said. 

A students adjusts her facemask at St. Joseph Catholic School in La Puente, California on November 16, 2020, where pre-kindergarten to Second Grade students in need of special services returned to the classroom. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

“In a Catholic community like ours, the family and teachers were critical partners, which is true of all education. But in a model like this, the Catholic mission stands at the forefront and the families are paying families so we have to have a plan that will work.”

With in-school problem solving from faculty, nurses, and principals, it was decided that one-third of schools would use a hybrid model, meaning that on some days, class would be in person while the rest would be distance learning. Vorbach described an approach that was data-driven and changed depending on community transmission.

Each school in the diocese retrofitted available space to accommodate local health guidelines, an effort that required all hands on deck. 

“All of the plans reflected the size and number of students in the building. It even included the shape of the building and the ability to repurpose space in the building,” he said.

Teachers, principals, and other school staff have had to get creative and use space to the best of their ability to accommodate the number of students and social distancing guidelines. 

“In one little school in Annandale, they have the gym, which they are using for two grades so that they can accomplish the social distancing they need. They’re also using an audio system to keep the sound level down so the two teachers, one on one side and one on the other, with a barrier, can run class without disturbing one another too much.”

From the moment anyone approaches the diocese’s schools, these alterations are noticeable. Upon entry, everyone entering the school must have their temperature checked and is required to complete a survey that asks about COVID-19 symptoms, and whether the individual has been in the presence of anyone with the virus.

“Then you’d see markers on the floor to direct students and maintain traffic patterns, extra hand cleaning stations. You go into classrooms and notice the distancing of desks, a teacher wearing a mask and a shield,” Vorbach adds.

In the U.S., COVID-19 cases surged in November and into December, reaching levels unseen throughout the pandemic. In Virginia, new cases reached a 7-day average of over 3,800 as of Dec. 13. Ahead of Thanksgiving, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam announced restrictions limiting gatherings to 25 people, and required all Virginians to wear face coverings inside public spaces. (RELATED: Joe Biden Pledges To Reopen Most Schools During First 100 Days Of Presidency)

Many of the nation’s largest school districts closed again in response to the rise in cases. Some have reopening dates in the new year, but in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston, districts haven’t determined when students will return to classrooms after putting off plans to reopen in mid-November. 

Data accumulated globally has shown that infections didn’t surge when schools reopened, even when community transmission was high. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, also recommended schools reopen while bars close in order to control infection rates while not keeping children from the classroom.

STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT – AUGUST 26: Classroom desks sit socially-distanced ahead of the return of students on August 26, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Vorbach said school leaders expected there to be cases among students and teachers, and the school’s response was developed alongside local health authorities. When cases are reported, the school conducts an assessment to determine who else the student was proximate to and when they were last in school. Then, there’s a quarantine period. 

“In some cases, a grade was put on quarantine,” he explained, when a fifth grade class at one school switched back to remote learning for a quarantine period because the community transmission rate increased. 

As Christmas approaches, he says, the schools expect another wave of traveling, which could mean another shift to remote learning out of caution.

“No one has approached this with anything but hyper vigilance and awareness. If there’s a potential for something to happen, we address it as quickly as possibly.”

He adds that there have certainly been sacrifices. Freshman year students haven’t met all of their classmates because of the way students cycle throughout the building, and the myriad of social distancing and sanitation protocols have weighed on everyone, teachers and students alike.

But Vorbach says students have been very compliant with the rules, and are just happy to be back in school after a limbo in the spring and summer that made the prospect of returning uncertain. Vaccine distribution has also started in the U.S., offering another source of hope for schools.

“The hope is that the arrival of the vaccine and the impact of the deployment in our area and our ability to return to normalcy will have a positive effect on schools.”