BRIDGEPORT—Students began returning to Catholic schools throughout the Diocese of Bridgeport this week for in-person classes and the start of a new school year.
Even through their tiny masks you could see the excitement on the faces of the elementary school children who were happy to see their teachers and friends once again after months of lockdown as a result of the pandemic.
Many of the twenty-five diocesan elementary and high school schools have different starting dates and some have staggered openings to better acclimate students to the safe return to class, but most schools will be filled with students and fully operational by the end of next week.
Among the first to return to school were the students of Holy Trinity Catholic Academy in Huntington and Notre Dame High School in Fairfield.
In Danbury, where a recent uptick in the virus delayed school openings, students are expected to return to class next week along with students enrolled in St. Aloysius of New Canaan, St James in Stratford, and St. Mary, Bethel.
The re-opening was made possible by months of planning and preparation for the return to in-person classes throughout the diocese, said Dr. Steven Cheeseman, superintendent of schools.
Dr. Cheeseman asked for prayers for all of the students, faculty and school communities in the coming weeks. “This will be a year like no other, but we can face it together and make the best of it.”
Just prior to the reopening, Dr. Cheeseman addressed parents, students and the school communities in a video that provided an overview of the extraordinary steps taken for a safe and measured re-opening during the pandemic.
Photos by Amy Griffin
“I hope you are all excited to finally get new school year underway and God willing this will be the first step in our return to a sense of normalcy,” he said from his office at the Catholic Center.
Over the next few weeks Dr. Cheeseman will complete his visits to every school to ensure compliance, to share best practices and to run through every possible scenario related to the re-opening and ongoing challenges.
Dr. Cheeseman said that the main concern shared by members of his leadership team and administrators faculty and parents throughout the system has been “ the safe return of over 6,500 students to our diocesan schools.”
While the schools have moved ahead with in-person classes, the diocese has also provided distance learning options for families who prefer to keep children at home through its online academy. At present, more than 150 students are enrolled in the academy: (www.OnlineCatholicAcademy.org)
Dr. Cheeseman said the schools are also prepared to move ahead with hybrid plans if that becomes necessary as a result of a spike of the virus in a given school.
Any future decisions to close a school or to make a transition to a hybrid model and full distance learning will be made on an individual school basis .
“The decision will be made in consultation between the school administration, the Office of the Superintendent in consultation with the bishop, and the Health Department from the township within which the school is located,” he said.
Factors in the decision if has to be made will be based on state guidelines and include the number of confirmed cases in the specific school and the ability of the school to mitigate risk of virus spread, he said.
Catholic schools have been able to move forward with in-person classes while many public systems can’t because they have been able to meet very strict protocols developed in compliance with CDC and state guidelines for reopening schools, Dr. Cheeseman said.
“While all educators agree that students should be back in school to ensure learning and to provide appropriate socialization opportunities, not all public schools are able to meet the State and CDC requirements to bring students back full time. In most cases it has to do with the size of the school population, the space available and the ability to schedule teachers.
“Thankfully we do not face the same issues. The smaller size of our school populations and the mission driven zeal of our teachers and administrators have allowed us to be flexible in our planning, to use space and instructional time creatively and to create school environments that are healthy, safe and nurturing.”
Put simply, we are able to open because we can meet, and in many cases exceed, the requirements and guidelines of the CDC and the State of Connecticut.
As a result of the ability to provide in-person classes, Dr. Cheeseman said that many of the schools have seen an increase in enrollment and a growing number of inquiries from public school parents.
While Dr. Cheeseman is confident that the schools can meet and even exceed government safety requirements, he says that as a parent as well as a superintendent and a parent, he approaches the school year with a sense of caution even as he is excited about the return to the classroom.
Although the intense and comprehensive planning by the diocese has become a model for other school systems, Dr. Cheeseman said he still loses sleep at night because of uncertainty about the pandemic.
“No matter what we do, we can’t answer every question because we don’t know what the future holds.”
However, he feels the schools are ready after “a tremendous amount of preparation and planning and the amazing work of principals” to implement the safety protocols.
(The superintendent’s office has created a COVID-19 hotline (203.209-2894) and email address (email@example.com) to answer any questions that parents have. The schools office has also released a list of Frequently Asked Questions (download here) that offer detailed information on a variety of topics. The full re-opening plan for diocesan elementary and high schools is available online: www.dioceseofbridgeportcatholicschools.com/coronavirus-reopening-plan.)