Attleboro area Catholic schools say they’re ready to reopen
While area public schools are still grappling with the details of when and how to bring students back to class, local Catholic institutions are making what might be called a leap of faith, although it’s one backed by science.
The Fall River Diocese announced last week that parochial elementary schools will open for in-classroom instruction in the fall, but online instruction will be available for families at risk.
And while school reopenings have become a political flashpoint nationally, Stephen Perla, superintendent of schools for the diocese, is confident local Catholic schools can do it safely for students and staff.
“Independent of anything happening in Washington, we will follow the best science,” he said, adding, “the health and safety of our students is first and foremost.”
Students in pre-K through eighth grade will be able to attend classes in person five days a week. That will include St. Mary’s in Mansfield, St. Mary’s-Sacred Heart in North Attleboro and St. John the Evangelist School in Attleboro. Diocesan high schools, including Attleboro’s Bishop Feehan, are expected to announce their reopening plans soon.
While educators and medical experts have said it’s important to get students back into classrooms as soon as it’s safe, parents and teachers have not always been comfortable with the planning so far.
One national survey by the American Federation of Teachers found about one in four educators were not willing to come back even with precautions, and a survey of parents found two-thirds were nervous about the prospect.
Public schools in the area, which recently received guidance from the state Education Department on reopening protocols, have yet to make their plans public. School administrators in many towns are drafting procedures for full in-person learning, a remote education option, or some hybrid in between.
Schools in the Fall River Diocese faced the same issues, Perla said, and opted for in-person learning.
“We felt we could provide the best education five days a week,” he said. “We are aware that we have families that have needs, too.”
He added, “I know there area going to be parents, and we’ve heard from some, that will not be comfortable having children go back to school. We’ll be allowing for remote learning.”
At least some St. John’s parents seem to be on board with the local school plans.
Maura Dimarco, an Attleboro resident whose twin daughters will be entering the eighth grade at St. John’s, is happy with the decision.
“I trust St. John’s at a very high level,” Dimarco said. “They are not going to risk their reputation They are going to do what’s right for kids and families.”
Jennifer Moore’s two children have been attending St. John’s since kindergarten. Her son Colin will be entering sixth grade and daughter Clare will be starting eighth.
“Although I haven’t seen the details of the plan to reopen yet, I’m positive it’s creative and innovative and will keep our school community safe. I trust that our administration and St. John’s families will be diligent and follow the new guidelines and procedures,” she said in an email.
Kellie Kickham started as principal at St. John’s last year. She said the schools and diocese have been planning intensively and right now are shooting for bringing students back in Attleboro by Aug. 26.
“We’ve had lots of different meetings to make sure we can make this happen,” she said, adding that they “want to get as many school in-person days” before the schools could face a transition back to remote learning during flu season.
Kickham said the school has made some accommodations already, doing things like removing bookcases to create more space for social distancing and working with the Attleboro Fire Department to make sure they can be in compliance with guidelines.
One advantage is that, the school, built in the 1960s, has large classrooms.
“We’ve been blessed that we’ve been able to accommodate a lot more students,” she said.
Parents have expressed concerns, but she said, “we are taking lots of health and safety precautions.”
Charlotte Lourenco, principal at St. Mary’s-Sacred Heart in North Attleboro, echoed those sentiments.
“All parents are concerned that any school is prepared for some of those challenges,” she said.
The North Attleboro school has tentative plans to reopen Aug. 25, she said, before referring other questions to the diocese office.
The principal of St. Mary’s in Mansfield was not available for comment.
Perla said local parochial schools will be ready when the time comes, including following all state guidelines, with desks 3 to 6 feet apart and masks and sanitzer on hand.
“We’ve preordered the personal protective equipment required by the state,” he said.
With Massachusetts cases of the coronavirus trending downward, he said bringing children back to school is the right course, for now. If, however, cases in the state should spike this fall, the schools will be prepared to return to remote learning.
Dimarco, the St. John’s mom, said her twins are anxious to get back to class with their friends.
“They are missing a major part of their education — social and emotional — by not being there,” she said.