By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

Schools in the Diocese of Baton Rouge are scheduled to open in early August, with principals using the month of July to tweak protocols, according to Dr. Melanie Palmisano, Superintendent of Catholic Schools.

Palmisano emphasized protocols will be tailored to each school’s individual needs, but the health and safety of all students and faculty remain the top priority.

“One size fits none,” she said. “To make one policy that would affect all 30 schools would not be useful.”

Schools must follow guidelines set by the Louisiana Department of Education. In the current Phase 2 of the state’s reopening, the maximum amount of people in a classroom is 25, including students, teachers and teacher aids. Some schools have already removed bookcases, reading corners and other furniture from their classrooms, creating additional square footage for proper social distancing.

“Schools are looking at different options,” Palmisano said. “They must look at the size of the room and where it is located.  Also, could be classes broken into smaller groups. Each group has to look at it.”

She said school officials have been huddling with consultants from Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center who are visiting each school and offering recommendations on a myriad of issues, including configurations of classrooms, how to address recess and lunch and best practices for students walking the hallway between classes.

“(The consultants) are helping the school figure out how to prevent as much as possible infections,” Palmisano said. “How to handle the day to day that we did not have to think about before COVID-19.”

Palmisano said start and end times will be determined by each school, with an attempt to keep those times “as normal at possible.” But she added the possibility exists that no public school bus service will be available because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“If that is the case, schools may have to stagger intake times to help parents with carpool traffic,” Palmisano said. “They will make sure students have a quality school day.”

Protocols for students entering the building will vary but Palmisano stressed all schools will have a method verifying each student is entering a healthy space. Parents might have to log into the school’s app in the morning and answer a series of health-related questions.

Some schools could possibly have daily temperature checks of all students.

Recess will also have a different look as students will not be allowed to play on the equipment or engage in any contact sports.

Lunch is also certain to have a far different look. Lunches will either be delivered to the classroom so students can eat at their desk or lunches will be grab and go, with students either returning to the class to eat or perhaps eating outside in picnic style, depending on the weather.

Palmisano said practice for fall sports at the elementary schools, which typically begin shortly after school opens, have been delayed until after Labor Day and “then we are going to see.”

The annual football jamboree has been cancelled and while hopeful games will be played, Palmisano said guidance from the state and health professionals will ultimately guide that decision.

Palmisano acknowledged some Louisiana public school systems are offering online class options but the diocese, in a statement released June 30, said, “Catholic schools in our diocese partner directly with parents on such requests. It is important for students to have social interaction at school for their holistic development, so the ideal is for students to return to classrooms and develop relationships with teachers and their peers. 

“However, if a need arises that warrants online learning support, Catholic schools are ready to consider that as a solution for individual situations.”

Split schedules, used in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,  appear unlikely as Palmisano said educators believe that format is not in the best interest of the students. She noted that in a Catholic school students are not coming to school just for the academics but also to be part of a learning community.

“The No. 1 lesson we learned from Katrina and the flood of 2016 is to be flexible and not be surprised about we have to do,” Palmisano said. “We have to remain focused on the goal, which is to help students continue to learn and feel like they are part of a learning community. When you focus on that you get really creative and flexible.”

In the event a student tests positive for the coronavirus, Palmisano said the diocese “will follow guidance, use our heads about this.”

In the case of a positive test, she said what must be determined is how close that student is in his or her circle of contact. Form letters will be sent to parents notifying them a student has tested positive.

Since some classes are close to 40 feet in width, students sitting across the classroom from the infected student would “probably not be quarantined. If they are sitting near that student, they may be close enough to be quarantined.”

She said that if a student’s family member tests positive, then that student will be quarantined for 14 days and attend online classes.

Extra cleaning will also be scheduled at all schools.

“All of this is preventive, trying to prevent infection,” Palmisano said.

“It will be a challenge, trying to keep it as normal as possible in the new normal,” she added.