First weeks of fall term go well, but not without having to clear a few hurdles

By Casey Ek

As fear of the spread of COVID-19 keeps students in the Saint Paul Public Schools learning from the distance of their home computers, some Saint Paul schools have found ways to return to in-person learning. Through the first month of the fall term, these private schools have refined their methods to maximize the safety of students and staff while allowing a high degree of face-to-face instruction.

Cretin-Derham Hall has taken a hybrid approach to learning since the first day of classes on August 31. Students with last names beginning with the letters A-L and M-Z alternate days learning from home via the internet and attending class in the high school at 550 S. Albert St.

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With an enrollment of about 940 students, it is not possible to accommodate full attendance while maintaining the necessary distance between desks, CDH administrators said. The school has adopted other health and safety measures as well, including limiting hallway traffic and establishing a new COVID response team.

CDH, like other private schools in the area, is using additional common areas within the school to allow for physical distancing at lunch and during other classroom periods. Students are surveyed daily with five questions to track symptoms and any possible contact with COVID-19.

back to school students
Saint Thomas More parent volunteer Carrie Luccio takes a student’s temperature as she arrives at school in the morning. Photo by Casey Ek

Holy Spirit School is conducting in-person learning for about 95 percent of its roughly 300 students in grades preK-8. The school at 515 S. Albert St. has transformed its commons where students once ate lunch into a makeshift classroom where students sit two to a table separated by plexiglass. While weather permits, teachers are also conducting some classes outside.

Students at Saint Thomas More, 1065 Summit Ave., are benefiting from the school’s large classrooms, which several decades ago accommodated up to 50 students each, according to Principal Pat Lofton. The prekindergarten, grade school and middle school each has its own floor and separate entrances where parent volunteers screen students daily for COVID-19 symptoms when they arrive at school.

Saint Thomas More has a total of 256 students, but with separate floors per age group, if a student in eighth grade, for example, were to test positive for COVID-19, it is possible that the preschool and grade school would notM have to close, Lofton said, though that would depend on the Minnesota Department of Health and the parents of students.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of if we’re going to experience COVID-19; it’s a matter of when,” Pat Lofton said. “We’re trying to be proactive in our communication (with families), and we’re encouraging them to do the same with us.”

“I don’t think it’s a matter of if we’re going to experience COVID-19; it’s a matter of when,” Lofton said. “We’re trying to be proactive in our communication (with families), and we’re encouraging them to do the same with us.”

CDH president Frank Miley would not say whether his school had experienced a case of COVID-19 in the first few weeks of the fall term. However, he believes CDH’s proactive approach to managing students and staff who come in contact with those who test positive for COVID has paid dividends. If anybody tests positive for the virus, per MDH guidelines, he or she will be quarantined and CDH will conduct rigorous contact tracing to determine with whom that individual may have come in contact at the school.

“One positive test could easily cause 10 people to go into quarantine,” Miley said. While quarantined, students and teachers may continue to tune into their classroom remotely if they feel up to it, he added.

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Two Holy Spirit sixth-graders in facemasks study at a table in the school’s commons equipped with a plexiglass divider for added protection. Photo by Casey Ek

Facemasks, social distance markings on the floor, training in coughing and sneezing etiquette, sanitation stations, regular environmental sanitizing and staggered start times are among the protocols common to all of the private schools that were contacted for this article. Students at all of the schools also have the option of learning from home.

Although the administrators interviewed described the return to in-person learning in positive terms, they said it has come with unique hurdles. Facemasks, for example, have presented difficulties for students and teachers alike, particularly when teachers are imparting difficult course material.

At Nativity Grade School, all but 38 of the 725 students in grades preK-8 are taking part in in-person instruction, according to principal Kate Wollan. Facemasks have been a challenge, she said, especially for hearing-impaired students who rely on lip reading. In these and other situations, Nativity teachers resorted to wearing clear face shields.

School administrators across the area also acknowledged the social and emotional difficulties students may have with the laundry list of COVID-19 protocols. Because of this, they have directed faculty to put a premium on students’ well-being as they get acclimated to being back in the classroom.

“Our emphasis has been on developing solid relationships with students,” said Holy Spirit principal Mary Adrian. “Only when students feel safe, secure and cared about can they learn.”

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