As Catholic elementary school students buckled down at their desks their first full week of classes Sept. 14-18, the superintendent of schools for the archdiocese buckled up in his car for a field trip to visit them—96 schools in five days.
“The reason that I physically went was because there was no letter, no note, no email that was adequate in expressing my profound gratitude to our pastors, our principals and our teachers for this remarkable reopening,” Michael Deegan told CNY in a phone interview Sept. 21.
“I had to look each principal in the eye and just simply express my gratitude for everything that they did, and everything that their teachers did, to have such a successful reopening.”
“I would characterize our reopening as outstanding,” Deegan said, “because of the amount of detailed planning of the Catholic School Reopening Advisory Council and the remarkable work of our pastors, our principals and our teachers.
“They were able to follow rigorously the guidelines and the mandates that we set forward.”
The pastors “have been exceedingly gracious and supportive,” the superintendent said, “in our efforts to get our school buildings up and ready.” They have also shared additional parish space to accommodate.
“It’s all hands on deck and everybody contributed,” Deegan said. “This awful experience has brought out the very, very best in all of our Catholic educators. They’ve gone above and beyond.”
Schools across the archdiocese closed in-person instruction on campuses March 16 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The back-to-school report card for the 2020-2021 academic year is already yielding high marks: “We could not be happier than we are about the reopening from a safety and health protocol perspective—everything went perfectly as planned,” Deegan said. Students have the option of remote learning, as they did toward the end of this past school year.
The superintendent’s recent visit to parish, private and regional elementary schools began at 7 a.m. that Monday and concluded at 4:45 p.m. this past Friday: Staten Island on Monday, Manhattan on Tuesday, the Bronx on Wednesday, the Upper Counties on Thursday and Westchester on Friday.
The visit did not include early childhood programs, special education or high schools.
During a visit to Immaculate Conception School on East Gun Hill Road, the Bronx, on the first day of classes, “I witnessed the children and the parents lining up, and it was as if they had practiced it for weeks,” Deegan said. “They held their social distancing spot, they submitted their Covid screening checklist, they got a squirt of hand sanitizer, they had their temperature taken and then they were escorted to their classroom.”
Even the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds “were perfectly fine,” Deegan said, adding it was actually the youngsters’ parents who were crying because it was their children’s first day of school.
The superintendent conceded there have been some “glitches” regarding technology. “When you provide asynchronized, livestreaming of class activities in every one of our 1,800 classrooms, it’s not until you actually test it the first week of school do you identify where there are bandwidth problems and interruptions to the cable providers—and we’re working with the cable providers to address some of those bandwidth issues.
“But even there,” Deegan said, “the parents have been terrific; they’ve been very supportive and understanding. And, of course, naturally, as is always the case, the kids have been great.”
He was referring essentially to those students learning remotely at home who are watching what is happening in their individual classroom.
The problems are sporadic and not widespread or universal, Deegan stressed, “and we’re working with those vendors to rectify that.”
Additionally, “there have been isolated cases of suspected and confirmed cases” of the coronavirus and, following the reopening plan, “we are working with the local health departments providing testing and contact tracing.”
Deegan also underscored that he heard “time and time again” in speaking with the principals that “everybody wanted to go back to school—the parents, the kids, the teachers, principals.” All the anxiety, the sleepless nights, the fear and the worry, “as soon as the first day began, all of that evaporated.”
“The kids are back in school, they’re happy, they’re learning,” Deegan added. “And we’re grateful for the trust that our parents have put in our teachers and principals.”
“And while I would not want to say that we’re back to normal, we are certainly back to the new normal and things are beginning to settle in, as we had hoped and prayed for.”
At Our Lady of Grace School in the Bronx, about 60 percent of the 370 students are attending classes in person five days a week, 25 percent are learning remotely and 15 percent are hybrid students, attending school three days and taking remote instruction two days.
Ten percent of students learning remotely full time when school opened are now attending school in person.
“It’s great. Everything is running smoothly,” said Rich Helmrich, school principal for 10 years.
Helmrich credited the archdiocese for having a clear plan for the start of school, as well as Our Lady of Grace’s supportive faculty and staff, students and parents. He said there were meetings with each class during the summer and he offered a virtual school tour for parents and students to see what the children could expect when they returned.
“I have to give credit to our teachers. They are the backbone of the system we have here,” Helmrich said. “The parents have been very supportive.”
Helmrich added the new gymnasium and classroom space, which opened in the former parish church during the 2019-2020 school year, is serving as the middle school for students in grades five through eight. This helps the school to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Students also are being instructed on how to stay safe when they are not in school. “They’re part of a larger community and the decisions they make will affect a lot of people,” Helmrich said.