Walking with Leaders - September 17th, 2020

In the complexity of celebrating Mass and sacraments during the ongoing and changing COVID-19 environment, diocesan leaders and priest are now opening their schools.

My friends and family are all looking for some way to have a sense of normalcy and hope that the school season is one way to feel more connected to each other and to parish communities! The early comments from our church leaders are positive and encouraging.

Here are a few examples of courageous first steps that may be the start of renewed interest in Catholic education, and in-person schooling.

School Opening Correlates with Increased Mass Attendance

Calvert Catholic Schools have opened their doors… at the same time, the doors to Mass have seen increased traffic!

At St. Mary Parish in Tiffin, OH, the Calvert Catholic school is dedicated to educating “the whole person,” says Pastor Matthew Rader. “We are committed to being open 5 days a week, but we still accommodate a hybrid model for the few families that cannot be here in person. Families are excited to get back to school, and I am noticing an increase in Mass attendance along with the school opening!” This is a blessing that the parish will continue to embrace.

Of primary importance during this time is to make sure that religious education programs are there to support the community – thankfully parishioners are stepping up to ensure this program thrives! Fr. Rader mentioned, “I am blessed to have committed catechists. Two of them were willing to take our materials and create a fully online version. So, we have the option for purely classroom and a separate option for purely digital religious education at St. Mary Parish.”

Creative Offer to New Students

In Manchester, they thought of a creative way to attract parents who may be on the fence about choosing Catholic education… and it is paying off by 25%!

Dennis Honan, Director of Operations and Planning for the Diocese of Manchester, is optimistic: “Our schools reopened on time with mostly in-person classes,” he said, “ we are also using a hybrid model for those parents and students who are not able to be present in-person. We are offering ‘Transfer Incentive Programs’ of $1000 off tuition for students to move to our Catholic Schools.” Honan is optimistic about the upcoming year, saying that student registrations are up 25% in comparison to 2019.

Forward-thinking Philanthropy Anticipated Virtual Education

Even before the pandemic hit, a philanthropist in the Diocese of Bridgeport already recognized the need for distance learning...

80% of parents in the Diocese of Bridgeport want their children to return to school, according to Deacon Pat Toole, Episcopal Delegate for Administration. “Given the capacity of our school buildings, we are able to set up classrooms for social distancing of 6 feet in all directions,” he states, “and we are starting to pick up students from public schools.” The diocese published a detailed operational plan for their 26​ schools, and in preparation for opening, installed kiosks for temperature checks and electrostatic sprayers in every school.

Here, philanthropy has paved the way for success, before COVID-19 was even an issue. “We had already moved to personalized learning over the past 3 years through the generosity of a benefactor. We have offered all parents the option of attending school through ‘online academy’ for a year.” The vision of one donor has made a profound impact.

High School Enrollment Increased by Over 150%!!!

Deacon John DiTaranto is the chaplain at Kolbe Cathedral High School in the city of Bridgeport. He says they are also seeing a significant increase in attendance. “People want the interaction with each other. Our incoming class is 108 students, compared to 42 last year. As part of our planning, we decided to conduct half-day classes, with two groups attending each day. The first group attends class from 8AM to 11 AM and the second from 11:30 AM to 2:30 PM each day, with sanitizing in-between. The two groups are referred to as the “yellow” and “blue” teams which represent the school colors. Students enter and exit the school through different doorways.” All hallways and stairwells are indicated with signs as “one-directional.” “Students are already respecting the social-distancing and mask requirements,” says Deacon DiTaranto, “we took time to explain why it was important to keep the community safe.”

As the chaplain, DiTaranto is focused on the formation of the students: “Our chapel is very small at the school, so we aren’t able to hold Mass and respect social-distancing. We are fortunate that the Cathedral for the diocese is on campus, and I am working with the staff to hold Mass there. We plan to start with an opening ‘Blessing of the Bibles’ for our new freshman class.”

When asked what he noticed regarding the students, Deacon DiTaranto said, “ The upperclassmen are setting the example for the behavior in the school. Members of the senior class came to the school early to volunteer as guides for the freshmen. They taught them about the directional arrows in the hallways and stairwells and the importance of following the guidelines and rules. This was all working in three days, and they continue to set the example.”

These schools, their leaders, and their students – who are stepping up as leaders themselves – give me hope for the future of our Church!

by Terry Poplava

September 17, 2020

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