All 37 Catholic elementary schools and three Catholic high schools in the Jefferson City diocese are on track to offer in-school instruction at the start of the new school year.
All will abide by the directives of their local health department as well as any federal and state guidelines for mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
“The children are going to come back to a place that is as prepared as it can possibly be to protect them and the teachers and staff,” stated Dr. Erin Vader, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools.
“And it’s going to be as focused as ever on creating an excellent academic environment that is rooted in Gospel values,” she said.
Dr. Vader noted that according to the most recent data, school-age children aren’t the ones getting sick enough from COVID-19 to be hospitalized.
“Adults are,” she noted. “So right now, the safety and health of our school families and the people who work in our schools is our biggest concern.”
She has been encouraging principals to assemble a cadre of short- and long-term substitute teachers to stand in if any faculty members become ill or have to take care of someone else who does.
She noted that at least until January, the schools have access to funding for extended medical leave for teachers and staff who need it.
“We are intensely optimistic and hopeful that while we’re preparing for the worst, we are going to have an exceptionally beautiful school year,” she said.
Dr. Vader pointed out that there’s no way to predict what course the pandemic will take in the various regions of the diocese.
“We’re all going to have to be flexible and patient with one another to make sure this all works,” she said. “We are working through all of this by the grace of God.”
She said one of the great things about Catholic schools is “that we’re able to individualize our plans to fit our local communities.”
On very short notice in mid-March of this year, all of the Catholic schools in the diocese switched from in-school to distance learning with the help of technology and creative, dedicated teachers and families.
This came in response to state and local directives for slowing the spread of COVID-19.
The efforts to continue educating students through the end of this past school year have been deemed largely successful.
Dr. Vader said all of the Catholic schools in the area are now in an even better position to make that same transition if necessary.
“We have all reflected on what worked well and what didn’t when we suddenly had to suspend in-school instruction, and now we’ll be better able to pivot in that direction if need be.”
She’s amazed at the anticipation she’s seen from children about getting back into school for the first time in months.
“The kids are very excited about being back within their community,” she said.
“And so are the administrators and the teachers. When you’re called to do something, and outside forces are keeping you from doing it, you’re in a very frustrating place.”
Gift and opportunity
The pandemic has been difficult for parishes, schools and families.
Yet, Dr. Vader recalls a quote she once read: “How can anything God gives you not be a gift?”
“We may not recognize that we are being given a gift right now,” she said, “but we are.”
“This is allowing all of us to understand what it means to sacrifice for the greater good,” she stated, “what it means to take care of one another in a lot of different ways.”
“And it’s giving us an opportunity to go through some trials so that we better appreciate what we have.”
As each school’s opening day approaches, she asked for prayers for protection, patience and compassion for everyone who will be going back to school.
“And gratitude,” she said. “Be grateful that we have all of this.”
She has made a habit of seeking the intercession from St. Joseph, patron saint of the Universal Church and protector of the Holy Family.
She said it’s important for people to tune out the loudest, angriest and most fearful voices during the pandemic and walk the line between paralyzing fear and dangerous ambivalence.
“If we allow irrational fear to dictate what we do, it will draw us away from what it means to be true Christians,” she said. “God gave us our minds to reason rightly, and if we allow irrational fear to take over, we’re not trusting God and we’re not trusting ourselves.”
At the same time, it’s essential for every educator, student and family member to take the pandemic seriously.
“We need to stay well informed and continue following the advice of the medical professionals who know better than we how to respond to this pandemic,” she said.
“We need to do what we can to protect ourselves and our families and protect our hospital and medical professionals from being overwhelmed, and balance all of that with living our lives.”