Jennifer Barton
January 27, 2021 // Diocese

Back to school plan — Flexibility, support equal success for diocesan schools

Jennifer Barton

When schools across the country closed in March, fears and questions about the following school year assaulted school leaders from all sides. No one knew what to expect or how schools would reopen in the fall. 

Even before the end of the school year, though, a collaborative effort led by Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend Superintendent Dr. Joseph Brettnacher and Carl Loesch, secretary for Catholic education, was already underway to navigate the unexpected scenario. The team worked long hours throughout the summer to pave the way for schools to reopen safely.

“It was critical for our schools to be able to open, for our teachers to know what the plan was and for our parents to know what the plan was,” said Loesch. 

The freedom to find their own way

For the plan to come about, school principals, counselors and staff members had to work together to answer the many questions the schools faced. According to Loesch, other dioceses in the state of Indiana “left it up to the individual schools to write their own plan. It was Joe’s brainchild to do what we could to take some stuff off the principals’ plate.”

Brettnacher assembled a team of individuals with experience in specific areas of expertise in a Catholic school setting. 

“We had five or six committees. We called them domains,” Brettnacher explained. “Then we had a committee of about 30 or 40 people that worked on them, from various stakeholder groups, to help out.”

The domains included logistics and planning, fostering community, curriculum and instruction, Catholic identity and technology support. By researching larger schools like Loyola University and local organizations such as Parkview Healthcare Systems, the team came up with main areas on which to focus. 

Once they established the primary areas the committees began digging deeper, studying each minute detail and tackling every question they could think of. “It’s so complex. They had to rethink every single procedure in their school,” Brettnacher said.

Provided by Jonelle Lesniak
Schools across the country faced large challenges to beginning the fall semester. In the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, part of the solution was to give Catholic school principals the freedom to make individual adjustments and decisions, including when to resume in-person learning. Above, a Holy Family student studies religion virtually.

The keys to success

Flexibility has been the greatest advantage the plan gave to the schools. Situations evolved as new problems surfaced, such as requiring students to log in virtually to ensure they are completing their work and handling school closings, as needed. The plan also allowed schools in various locations to use their best judgement, based on local data, to protect students while still giving them the best education possible. 

Principals have been able to refer to the plan or to use the networking opportunities Brettnacher put in place to answer their questions. “We’ve done whatever we could to reduce the amount that our principals have to do,” reiterated Brettnacher.

But he does not take credit for the 40-page plan that was the final product of the committee meetings, nor implementation of the plan within individual schools. He stressed, “It’s been everybody pulling together.” He emphasized the role that Loesch and Mary Glowaski, assistant to the bishop in pastoral care, played in ensuring the continuity of Catholic identity in the schools, as well as Glowaski’s work fostering community and tending to the social-emotional well-being of students. 

He also credits Jeff Kiefer, assistant superintendent, for visiting various schools to instruct teachers in methods that best utilize their teaching time: such as recording and uploading videos rather than duplicating a lesson. Loesch explained that prior to this, “some of the teachers were doing double work – preparing a lesson to teach in person and recording themselves for the next day.”

Provided by Mike McClain
A preschool class at Sacred Heart School, Warsaw, enjoys a socially distanced outdoor read-aloud session led by teacher Cindy Hollowell last spring, shortly before schools shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But even before the premature end of the 2019-2020 school year, a collaborative effort led by Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend school leaders was underway to navigate reopening concerns that were on the horizon.

Giving more than was expected

One of the larger problems facing schools in the diocese this year was a lack of substitute teachers – something that had also been an issue prior to the pandemic. In many instances, school staff had to take on the job. 

According to Brettnacher, the schools also did a great job of helping one another. 

“One instance is Marian High School. St. Anthony of Padua had their whole cafeteria staff quarantine, and they went and did the food for them. At St. Joseph School in Fort Wayne, when the entire cafeteria staff got it, they told the (food service) company, ‘you have to supply us with workers to get the cafeteria going.’” He told of a principal who cleaned toilets when the maintenance staff was out with COVID-19.

In spite of the stress and strain, the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend was not forced to permanently close a single one of its 43 schools in 2020, in large part due to the support of parents, staff, the parish community as well as the reopening plan. 

 “When doing something this big, it’s really important to have the ‘why’ in mind,” Loesch said. “The ‘why’ is that we are better when we’re together; we’re better when we’re in relationship. We’ve a sacramental, incarnational Church.” 

“Catholic schools are a great gift to our diocese, a great gift to our Church,” he added. “I think when the history books are written, 2021 is going to be a pretty proud year for what everybody did in them.” 

Three modes of learning

A major part of the return-to-school plan for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend was for schools to have the ability to switch between three modes of learning with relative ease. Those modes are Mode 1, in-person with virtual option; Mode 2, hybrid with virtual option; and Mode 3, virtual only. 

In Mode 2, the student body is split into two groups that come into school on alternate days and learn virtually on the other days, which allows for fewer students in the building four days a week. The fifth day is typically a virtual day, which is an opportunity for deep cleaning of the schools by janitorial staff. Mode 2 also frees up classroom space for students to spread out on in-person days. 

Two of the high schools had to make the switch between modes during the fall semester: Bishop Dwenger in Fort Wayne and St. Joseph in South Bend. Allen County and St. Joseph County have seen very different numbers of COVID-19 cases, and they took different approaches to implementing learning styles this year.

Plan, adjust, revise

St. Joseph High School principal John Kennedy took one tact at the start of the new school year. “A guiding principle of our back-to-school plan was to protect the health and safety of all and so that’s been a priority. Another guiding principle was to live our mission, which is to transform students in heart and mind. So we looked at this from a standpoint of, how can we deliver quality learning and also foster community in any of the modes of learning?”

Given large COVID-19 numbers and tight restrictions in St. Joseph County early in the school year, Saint Joseph began in Mode 3: virtual for the first three weeks of school. Kennedy said that throughout the semester, it has “strategically made some shifts” due to changing numbers in both the county and the school community. 

Saint Joseph has been through all three modes, ending the semester back in Mode 3 after Thanksgiving.

Because of the hard work of the committees that laid out the plan over the summer, Kennedy said, “We felt prepared, but then we also had to adjust and revise and problem solve along the way. We had a great plan that was our foundation, but then … a new situation came along and you had to figure it out. So it was a combination of relying on the plan and problem solving and adapting as needed.”

Streamlining and finding a silver lining

Bishop Dwenger took a somewhat different approach, though adjustments have been necessary on the Fort Wayne side as well. Starting off the year in Mode 1, principal Jason Schiffli stated that shortly into the school year, roughly 10% of absences were COVID-19 related, either because of symptoms that indicated the virus or quarantining due to exposure. “Ten percent was a benchmark to me,” Schiffli said. He explained that the high school principals had discussed a 10% threshold, though it was not set in stone and was simply what he had chosen as a trigger to make the transition to Mode 2. 

“Our teachers I felt were prepared because we trained them over the summertime to do synchronous learning. That was the big buzzword in education, ‘synchronous learning,’” he continued. It meant that teachers were able to teach live lessons through virtual platforms rather than posting assignments on the Canvas online learning platform and then recording lessons for students’ later use.

Leaders at Bishop Dwenger planned to reassess the learning style weeks after school began, but it seemed that every time they hoped to go back to Mode 1, the COVID-19 numbers would spike again. 

“I want everyone to be in the building, I really do. … And that’s part of the education, not only the education, but the experience of being at Bishop Dwenger, of being ‘Dwengerized’ — exposure to your friends, your teachers, all that interaction going on. That’s the special part. Unfortunately, a lot of parents, when I went to Mode 2, saw that being kind of like an ax cutting down what they thought Dwenger was all about.”

Both principals sought to keep parents informed of any changes and the need for them. “While there were different opinions, overall parents were very supportive,” Kennedy said. Schiffli shared that though there was some pushback, by mid-semester many of those who had initially opposed the hybrid system expressed a desire to remain in Mode 2. “Being at Dwenger half the time is better than not being here at all.”

He admitted that the psychological toll on students has been rough, with a majority of them feeling the strain of dealing with COVID-19 restrictions. For students with special needs and those at risk of failing classes, Bishop Dwenger has made exceptions, allowing them to be in school four days a week. He gives credit to the pastoral ministry staff, school counselors and chaplains for aiding the students and the teachers during this difficult time. 

The priority: Students’ well-being

While there is an obvious concern for students’ mental health, most of them have handled the transition between modes fairly well, Kennedy said. “They showed up and they did their best and were just incredible in that they gave us their best in whatever mode it was.” The school itself already had a bit of a head start in that each student is given a laptop when they begin at Saint Joseph. “And we offered hotspots to students if they needed them to improve their internet access at home.”

Schiffli noted that less than 15 families chose the virtual option from the start of the school year, but some of the athletic students chose to go into Mode 3 to minimize their time in school and the risk of getting ill during their sports season. “It was not a mandate or a requirement from the coaches for the girls and boys to go into Mode 3; that was something the parents asked to keep our kids safe.”

Catholic identity is still at the heart of the education system, of course, especially in the midst of a pandemic. At Saint Joseph, Kennedy said teachers still start each class with a prayer and students attend Mass prior to going virtual. “And while we were virtual, we did a variety of things; daily prayer at the start of every class, some virtual speakers and some opportunities for students to come into the building to participate in small-group faith activities. While it was a challenge, we made it a priority that the Catholic faith was present and every student was engaged.”

Leading by example

For the start of the new semester, both schools planned to continue in the mode in which they had ended the fall semester, with Saint Joseph progressing to Mode 2 in early January. The plan is to eventually get back into Mode 1, with all students returning to the school campuses when it is deemed safe to do so. 

Teachers have been the real backbone in the schools this year, say the principals. Without their hard work in learning new modes of teaching, methods of engaging students who are not physically in the classroom and altering the materials to changing expectations, students would not be able to adjust to the changes as easily. 

“I want to acknowledge that our teachers and staff have worked extremely hard and been extremely dedicated to bringing quality learning to our students throughout the semester,” said Kennedy. 

Schiffli acknowledged Brettnacher and Loesch for their tireless work in the spring and summer meeting with principals and staff members and training and preparing them for what may be  the strangest school year in everyone’s memory.

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