Catholic schools begin planning for reopening in fall

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Catholic schools begin planning for reopening in fall

In the days after the Office of Catholic Schools released its reopening plan, principals across the Archdiocese of Chicago fielded questions and worked to figure out exactly what the plan would look like in their individual schools.
McKenna Corrigan, principal at St. Ann School in Pilsen, reconfigures classroom space for students to maintain social distance July 20, 2020. The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Catholic Schools released its plan for schools to reopen in the fall and provided requirements to help keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Working behind a safety partition on July 15, 2020, administrative assistant Bridget Fletcher makes preparations for the safe return of students to St. Paul of the Cross School in Park Ridge in the upcoming months. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Maintenance staff at St. Paul of the Cross School in Park Ridge measure where to put social-distancing markers on the ground on July 15, 2020, as the school makes preparations for the safe return of students in the upcoming months. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

In the days after the Office of Catholic Schools released its reopening plan, principals across the Archdiocese of Chicago fielded questions and worked to figure out exactly what the plan would look like in their individual schools.

The plan, available at, calls for all teachers and students 3 years old and older to wear masks and stay in homeroom-based cohorts most of the day.

According to the document, the safety and well-being of students and staff members is the primary focus, and because the pandemic is unpredictable, it is possible that schools will have to be closed. The plan was developed in consultation with public health, civic and educational authorities.

Jim Rigg, the superintendent of Catholic schools, said the archdiocese is holding video training sessions now for principals and their academic and health and safety teams.

“We’re going to be providing our teachers and staff members with intensified training ahead of the start of the year,” Rigg said. “And we know that things will look different for students, so we’ll have to help orient them and train them on how to wear masks.”

The office is also offering “starter packs” for schools with everything they need to get the building ready, and negotiated for discounts on cleaning and disinfecting supplies for schools.

Molly Cinnamon, principal at Pope John XXIII in Evanston, said she spent the weekend after the plan was announced answering questions and responding to emails.

“They trust us,” she said. “They know we’re going to do everything to keep their children safe. It’s not a, ‘We’re not doing it.’ It’s a, ‘What will it be like?’ We’ll figure it out together. We’ll have some hiccups. We can iron those out.”

Many parents are most worried about their children wearing masks and social distancing, especially those with young students.

“The biggest concern is coming from preschool parents,” said McKenna Corrigan, principal of St. Ann School, 2211 W. 18th Place. “I’ve been in education for 12 years, and kids are incredibly resilient and they will adjust as long as they see adults modeling it in a positive, fun, encouraging way.”

Kathy Berry, principal of St. Symphorosa School, 6125 S. Austin Ave., said she’s keeping a list of questions from parents to find the answers to.

“It’s just a lot of questions,” she said. “Even though the guidelines are 30 pages, it’s a lot of nuance. … Our tagline is, ‘A family celebrating faith.’ This is my family. Keeping them safe — it’s just magnified so much.”

Erika Mickelburgh, principal at St. Paul of the Cross in Park Ridge, said she’s confident that her faculty and staff will be able to handle the safety protocols and any academic gaps students have after six months out of the school building. What they’re most worried about, she said, is the social and emotional effects children are dealing with.

“How do we support our kids, when the school they are coming back to looks very different than the school they left?” said Mickelburgh, who also has two children in the school. “We will not be able to start school in our usual way, with the supply drop-off and ice cream social.”

Instead, Mickelburgh will send out information ahead of time, and schedule orientation sessions for returning students to help them get used to new ways of doing things and to give them time to process the changes.

“We need to be deliberate in how we plan for those safe spaces,” Mickelburgh said.

Under the plan, schools will have to consider everything from drop-off and pick-up procedures to the arrangement of furniture in classrooms.

Students will have their temperatures taken and be asked about any possible COVID-19 symptoms every day when they enter the building. Staff will also make sure students are wearing their masks properly and see that students wash or sanitize their hands.

To make that work, Rigg said, schools can collect cohorts outdoors and bring them in one at a time, using different doors for different cohorts if possible. That might mean having to stagger the daily start time.

Foot traffic within the buildings will be delineated with markings and signs. Classroom desk and tables are to be spaced as far apart as possible, and arranged so that all students face the front of the classroom. Extra furniture is to be removed.

Cinnamon said having a smaller school will be an advantage this year.

“Now the low enrollment is kind of our ace in the hole,” she said. Pope John XXIII has about 200 students, with classes from 12 to 18 students. “We have space to spread out. And we can do a full open, five days a week, with kids and teachers. I’m encouraged that we can be a model for other schools if we just take it slow and think about it.”

Corrigan said she also sees her school’s lower enrollment as an advantage. She’s been working with a parent who is a nurse for a few weeks already to figure out how to do temperature checks, for example.

Students are not to share school supplies, and any equipment that must be shared — for example, computers in a fixed lab — must be disinfected between students.

The only time students and teachers can remove their masks is while they eat and when they are outside, but when masks are removed, they must stay at least six feet from one another.

At the end of the school day, parents waiting to pick up their children will no longer be allowed to congregate at the school door or gate.

During the day, each cohort of students will likely spend a lot more time in its own classroom, with special-subject teachers coming to them instead of the class traveling to other rooms, Rigg said. While going to the gym is permissible, students would have to keep masks on, so vigorous activity might not be the best idea, Rigg said. Having gym outside — with no masks but 6 feet between students — is a possibility, weather permitting.

Corrigan said what was the teacher parking lot will likely be used as outdoor classroom space this year, also weather permitting.

Students at many schools will likely eat lunch in their classrooms as well, Rigg said, as no more than 50 students can be in the cafeteria at a time and they have to be 6 feet apart because they cannot wear masks while eating.

School Masses will also change, with schools having to follow their parishes’ archdiocesan-approved procedures.

“I worry about the faith piece just because of Mass,” Cinnamon said. “How do we do that? The Catholic identity piece is really important.”

Because of the risk of spreading the virus, students should not sing in music class and any choir or drama programs should be held virtually, Rigg said. Band practice in small, socially distanced groups will be allowed, but not with any wind or brass instruments. Those lessons will have to be virtual.

As for extracurricular sports, Rigg said, the archdiocese is waiting for guidance from the Illinois Elementary School Association.

“We can’t possibly cover everything in a plan like this,” Rigg said. “What’s most important is that the people in the school understand the basic principles about masks, about distance, about handwashing.”

When someone in a Catholic school does test positive for COVID-19, Rigg said the school community will be notified. The person must follow the guidelines for the Centers of Disease Control before returning at least 14 days later.

The school will keep a closer watch on any symptoms within the student’s or teacher’s cohort. If a second person in the cohort tests positive, it’s likely that their whole cohort will be quarantined at home for 14 days.

Students or staff who have a family member at home who tests positive also are expected to quarantine at home for at least 14 days.

Students who show any symptoms of COVID-19 are asked to stay home and get tested, and if the symptoms appear when they are at school, they will be sent home and asked to get tested.

If they have a negative test, they can return to school when the symptoms subside.

The experience with distance learning in the spring should help students stay connected to school during longer absences, principals said, but it will be more difficult for schools that haven’t had the resources to offer, say, a Chromebook for every child in the past.

Families that don’t want to send their children to school buildings can opt for virtual school. They will be asked to register at and pay tuition to their regular school, but their children will receive instruction through an archdiocese-wide virtual school, Rigg said.

It could be that there is a parent or child who has risk factors that would make COVID-19 especially dangerous for them, Rigg said.

“It could be that they’re just worried,” Rigg said. “We’re here for those families as well.”

Cinnamon said she is assuring families who want to consider virtual learning that they will still be part of the Pope John XXIII community.

“Maybe it’s something they want to revisit at the end of the trimester,” she said.

In the meantime, she’s planning a virtual coffee hour for parents and making appointments with those who want to meet face-to-face, outside the school door if need be.

Corrigan said St. Ann will tie safety measures to it’s ongoing campaign named for its mascot “Crusaders Are Called.”

“It will be, ‘Crusaders are called to wear a mask and wash their hands. Crusaders are called to lead by encouraging everyone to be safe. Crusaders are called to show love for one another by maintaining distance.”


  • catholic schools
  • coronavirus
  • covid-19

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