How one diocese's schools remain open for in-person learning

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Catholic schools around the United States adjusted to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Halfway through the school year, one diocese explained to CNA how it has remained open for in-person learning while local public schools maintain distance learning.

"Our schools have not been sources of community transmission," Dr. Joseph Vorbach, Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Arlington, told CNA on Tuesday. Vorbach said that of the nearly 17,000 students enrolled in the diocese's 41 schools, fewer than 200 students have been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

More importantly, Vorbach told CNA that to his knowledge, no student or teacher for the Diocese of Arlington has been hospitalized from the virus. 

Vorbach credited the precautions taken by the diocese's 37 elementary schools and four high schools for keeping their students and staff largely safe from the spread of the virus. 

These measures include requiring students and staff to wear masks, instituting hallway traffic patterns, repurposing large rooms like the gym and cafeteria as classrooms to facilitate social distancing, and keeping groups of students separate from other groups. 

All four of the high schools have implemented some sort of hybrid model of learning, where different cohorts of students alternate between in-person and virtual education each week. Meanwhile, around two-thirds of the diocesan elementary schools are meeting in person every day and the remaining third use a hybrid model. 

And while the hybrid model is not ideal--Vorbach noted that "half the freshmen class hasn't met the other half of the freshman class, which is strange"--it serves a purpose of "getting them [students] back in the building."

"And, it facilitates in-person instruction, which makes the home (learning) time stronger," he said.  

Vorbach spoke with CNA ahead of Catholic Schools Week, an annual week-long celebration of Catholic education in the United States. The 2021 celebration will be held from Jan. 31 through Feb. 6.

As CNA reported last summer, Catholic dioceses scrambled to plan for the 2020-21 academic year during the pandemic. Some dioceses required parents to sign a waiver of liability for their child to return to in-person learning at schools; others offered remote learning options, or petitioned local authorities to reopen for in-person learning. 

On Jan. 26, three members of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), claiming that schools could safely reopen for in-person learning during COVID-19 provided that they took certain precautions.

In addition to masks and social distancing, Vorbach said that diocesan schools took proactive steps to stop the spread of the virus ahead of the traditional flu season. After Thanksgiving and Christmas, many schools opted to go entirely virtual for one week "out of an abundance of caution," in case any students or staff contracted the virus over the holidays. 

"Things have gone really well," Vorbach told CNA. "It has to be said that it's going well because of the great planning that went into these mitigation plans, and the following of the mitigation plans." 

One school did temporarily stop in-person learning before Christmas, due to a virus outbreak. 

"Out of an abundance of caution coming out of the holiday, they remained in e-learning," Vorbach said. "But they're back in business again with their in-person models."

Over time, schools have improved at handling cases of the virus, he said. 

"Each time a school went through its first instance of having a teacher or a student test positive, there was that nervousness and anxiety about exactly how to handle it," he said. But as the months went on, Vorbach said the schools "started to develop a lot of great collaborative sharing going on among those who had gone through it."

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"And honestly, the public health folks in all the counties have been really great," he said. "The nurses in our schools have been great."

Meanwhile, in Arlington Public Schools, Alexandria City Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools--all of which are in the territory of the Arlington Diocese--in-person learning of any form is not occurring for the vast majority of students. Many kindergarteners have yet to go to a classroom. 

Dr. Francisco Duran, superintendent of Arlington Public Schools, declined to give a date as to when classrooms and schools would re-open and said "no decisions have been made."  

"My commitment to the health and safety of students and staff remains and I will not announce dates until we are ready and confident in mitigation and operational readiness for larger groups of our staff and students," said Duran in a statement released Jan. 23. 

Vorbach admitted that, as the local public schools were not re-opening back in September and August, there was a "level of uncertainty" associated with the diocesan schools opening for in-person learning. 

"I think you'd have to say [things went] better than expected," he said. Enrollment has remained stable, with waiting lists at some schools, and while there has been learning loss associated with the pandemic, overall "the loss is less in Catholic schools than the larger dataset," said Vorbach. 

Students at Diocese of Arlington schools recently took standardized tests, he noted, which will help schools strategize how best to respond to students falling behind in learning.

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But most of all, Vorbach is quick to credit the "effort of the principals and teachers," plus other school staff, "who worked so hard to make this possible."  

"It's taken a lot," he said. "I salute the teachers and the principals who have done so much to make it work, because they believe in the value of having them there."

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