July President’s Pen: Today is the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola

Today is the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola.  Among his many inspired writings, including The Spiritual Exercises, he is purported to have said, “Pray as if God will take care of all; act as if all is up to you.”  Another saying attributed to him is, “Love is shown more in deeds than in words.”  We love our students and we want what is best for them – best for their health and best for their academic and human development.  Unfortunately, the pandemic puts us in a situation where what is best for their physical well-being is not completely aligned with what is best for their intellectual and spiritual development.  We also love and respect our faculty and staff and want what is best for them, too.  Reopening CRSM is an activity that we hope demonstrates our love.

Devising a reopening plan for the coming school year consumed most of our Leadership Team’s summer.  We’ve consulted CDC guidelines, the Departments of Health for both Illinois and Lake County, several reputable COVID studies, recommendations from the Illinois State Board of Education, and the Archdiocese.  We have also read extensively about what other countries have done when reopening their schools.  New Zealand, Norway, Israel, the United Kingdom, Germany, and South Africa.   “Outbreaks in schools are inevitable,” says Otto Helve, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, “But there is good news.” He goes on to discuss changing schools’ daily routines to minimize opportunities for transmission and adhering to protocols that identify and isolate cases and close contacts quickly.  We have tried to take the best from these sources and incorporate them in our plans.

The bottom line is that reopening is not without risk.  We can only do our best to manage and minimize the risk.  And that is what we are attempting at CRSM while recognizing that anything we implement must be fluid enough that we can change as our situation changes.  Being a school of only 400 students gives us an advantage over larger schools because we can keep our daily in-person attendance numbers low and we can divide students into smaller, discreet cohorts to minimize wider contact within the school.

Our plan is this:  students will attend in-person classes two days per week, plus one synchronized remote learning day per week, and two asynchronous remote learning days per week (including their designated Corporate Work Study Program workday).  Synchronous means students sign into live, remote classes with their classmates and teachers via google hangout, zoom, or some other technology platform where they can ask questions and participate in group discussion.  Students will be divided into discreet cohorts of 33 – 35 persons and there will be no more than 12 students in a classroom at a time. There will be no more than three cohorts in the building on any given day.  If, or as Otto Helve maintains, when an outbreak occurs, we can isolate and move a cohort into quarantine without other students or an entire grade level having to do the same.

During summer school, this combination of in-person instruction coupled with synchronous and asynchronous remote learning was tested with a much smaller group of students.  We found that students performed better because the regular in-person contact with teachers held them accountable while the ability to attend live remote classes with their entire class once a week helped maintain healthy peer interactions and provided a greater sense of community.   Summer school lasted four weeks and, thanks be to God, we did not experience any outbreaks.

All classrooms have only 10 – 12 desks each with the rest of the furniture put in storage.  Desks are arranged a minimum of six feet apart and the teaching area in front of the room is twelve feet from the closest students.  We took this added precaution because teachers are not part of any one student cohort and, over the course of each week, will teach students from multiple cohorts.

Other protocols include daily screening of everyone prior to entering the building.  You must answer questions about whether you or anyone you live with is exhibiting one or more COVID symptoms.  If yes, you are sent home and will participate in solely remote learning until symptom free for at least two weeks.  Additionally, everyone’s temperature is taken before entering.  If you have 100.4F temperature or greater, you are sent home until you are symptom-free for two weeks or can show negative COVID test results.

Everyone will wear masks at all times except lunch period.  We are also offering face shields to wear along with masks for anyone who desires to do so.  We will have two lunch periods and students will be seated with appropriate distancing using both our cafeteria and library spaces so that there will be no more than 25 students in a single area at a single time and they will be very spread out.  Tables will be wiped down after each period with disinfectant.  Hand sanitizing stations are positioned throughout the building and bottles of hand sanitizer are prevalent in the classrooms and office areas.  Time is allocated in the daily schedule for handwashing.

We have two electrostatic cleaning units on order so our cleaning staff can disinfect the building afterhours every evening.  In addition, we are getting quotes to retrofit bathrooms with all touchless fixtures and exploring installing Ultraviolet air purifiers in our HVAC system.

It’s not a perfect plan but it as good a one as we could devise that finds the balance between minimizing risk and maximizing learning for our students while also trying to keep our faculty and staff safe.  Staff who can continue to work from home are encouraged to do so,  only coming to campus when necessary.  Teachers and students are given the opportunity to opt out of the hybrid schedule and allowed to teach and learn 100% remotely.  So far, 6 of our teachers and about two dozen students will start the year without in-person instruction.  But, come August 17, we will have more than 375 students and nearly 20 teachers trying to make it work.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are not in control.  We are simply taking St. Ignatius’ advice – acting as if all is up to us but praying like mad that God will take care of all.  Please keep our students and faculty in your prayers as we look forward to the new school year.  May God bless you and keep you safe and healthy in these uncertain times.