For Detroit-area Catholic schools, back to school is anything but ‘back to normal’

From plexiglass dividers to face masks, movie theater classrooms and distance learning plans, schools welcome students for unusual year

WATERFORD — Backpack? Uniform? Face mask? Check, check, and check.

The daily routine for Catholic school students in the Archdiocese of Detroit is just another reminder that back to school in 2020 is anything but back to normal.

But while COVID-19 remains an ever-present reality, students, teachers and administrators across the archdiocese’s 86 diocesan and independent schools are eager to return to in-person learning for the first time since March, armed with a laundry list of safeguards, protocols and policies to keep everyone as safe as possible.

“As a teacher, I missed seeing their faces, seeing if the lightbulb is going off, if they are understanding a topic,” Maria Davison, a fourth-grade teacher at Holy Redeemer School in southwest Detroit, told Detroit Catholic. “I just find the interaction with students so much better in person.”

The counties that compose the Archdiocese of Detroit are in phase 4 of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Start Plan, which allows schools to return to face-to-face learning provided proper protocols are in place.

First-grader Abby Chestnut raises her hand during orientation at Our Lady of the Lakes Elementary School in Waterford on Aug. 25. In younger grades, plexiglass dividers separate desks to prevent the spread of germs. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Students and staff began returning to Our Lady of the Lakes, a K-12 school in Waterford, on Aug 25. As the school year begins, everyone is expected to wear face masks in hallways, and in classrooms, plexiglass dividers between desks make it more difficult to pass germs.

“All students at Our Lady of the Lakes and any staff member entering the building must wear a face mask; that’s been the big push from the return-to-school task force,” said Jeanine Kenny, head of school at Our Lady of the Lakes and a member of the Archdiocese of Detroit Catholic Schools Office’s 14-member return-to-school task force.

The task force, headed by associate superintendent Vic Michaels and comprising school administrators, teachers, pastors and medical professionals, released a list of protocols in July for the archdiocese’s Catholic schools to safely reopen.

In addition to face masks, hand sanitizer stations are installed throughout the school, and floor markings help students and staff stay socially distant in common areas, Kenny said.

Because younger children aren’t expected to keep their masks on in the classroom — consistent with medical advice — lower elementary school desks are fitted with plexiglass dividers, Kenny said. Upper school students will be required to wear masks all day, and teachers will wipe down desks and fixtures after each class.

Our Lady of the Lakes High School sophomore Bella Asai enters the school during orientation Aug. 25. The Waterford Catholic school is one of many in the Archdiocese of Detroit returning to in-person classes with a host of safety protocols.

For Our Lady of the Lakes sophomore Bella Asai, the protocols are a small sacrifice to see her friends and teachers again.

“I know we have to wear masks here at Lakes, but it’s such a big place,” Asai said. “With online classes, I couldn’t ask my teachers questions, so I struggled with some lessons. It was hard to arrange Zoom meetings; it’s a lot easier when you have someone helping you in person.”

No one-size-fits-all approach

Across the archdiocese, schools have taken different approaches to the new school year. Even though in-person learning remain the preference, most schools also are preparing hybrid and distance-education plans should the virus’ spread require a return to remote lessons.

For many families, weighing the benefits of in-person learning against the potential threat of the virus is an intensely personal decision. 

“We had very long discussions. Both myself and one of the younger ones have immune systems that are compromised with asthma,” said Deyfi Martinez, a mother of four with a student at Cristo Rey High School and two at Holy Redeemer in southwest Detroit. “Given everything they are doing to reassure about social distancing and safety, we felt comfortable enough to send them back, but that might change in the future if need be.”

Cristo Rey is doing remote schooling this semester, while Holy Redeemer returned to in-person classes Aug. 25, with a remote option for families who don’t feel comfortable returning yet.

Students arriving for the first day of orientation at Holy Redeemer School in southwest Detroit are greeted with temperature checks as they enter the building. 

Giselle Martinez, a seventh-grader at Holy Redeemer, shares her mother’s concerns, but is ready to tackle the new school year.

“I’m excited to come back; but at the same time nervous,” Giselle Martinez said. “We talked about how we felt going back. We talked about wearing a mask, keeping our distance. But it’s easier learning in person.”

About 10 of the 74 middle schoolers have elected to use Holy Redeemer’s remote-learning option, estimates Laura Ilov, a sixth- through eighth-grade reading and writing teacher at the school.

“As teachers, we will be teaching in class, in person, but then at the end of the day, I will do a short video on what I highlighted in class,” Ilov said. “We have a teacher in Berkley who helps them as a guide, virtually, meeting with them daily. And if the students still have questions, we will meet with them weekly through Zoom.”

Shrine High School and Academy in Royal Oak took the remote-option learning a step further, entering an agreement with the local Emagine Theater — which remains closed because of Gov. Whitmer’s order — to serve as an optional off-site distance-learning center for Shrine students.

Grades seven through 12 will attend traditional classrooms every other day, with days determined by last name. On students’ “off days,” parents can drop them off at the theater, where instructors will be on hand to assist with lessons in a socially distant environment.

Parents and teachers tour the setup at Emagine Theater in Royal Oak, which will serve as an alternative distance learning site for Shrine High School students, who will attend traditional classrooms every other day.  

“I think we are taking things in a really positive way, trying to be innovative and solve problems,” Shrine principal James Mio said. “Parents returning to work might not be able to help their student access videos or answer questions, so this allows students to receive that in-person instruction, albeit in a unique way.”

Shrine’s class schedule, dress code, and meal service will continue at the movie theater, with students reporting to different theaters designated to a particular class. Students will have access to the theater’s WiFi, while Emagine will sell concessions throughout the day.  

“We examined the state guidelines and realized we’d have a challenge with social distancing with the size of the building we have,” Mio said. “So we have a hybrid plan where 50 percent of our students will go to the school building on a given day, and the other half will have the Emagine Theater option.”

Safety first, in an unsafe world

At Holy Redeemer, teachers have been instructed to prepare lessons using online technology as much as possible, in case the school has to switch to distance learning again.

“As teachers, we’re always creating,” Davison, the fourth-grade teacher, said. “So now it’s about creating lesson plans that students can take home, on their tablets. Some lessons might start in the classroom, but students could finish it from home.”

The archdiocese’s back-to-school task force asked schools to examine as many scenarios as possible, said Jared Kullman, assistant principal at Our Lady of the Lakes, who served on the task force’s academic excellence subcommittee.

“We established early on what we felt would be necessary to continue learning, no matter what a school chose,” Kullman said. “We looked at things like attendance, learning-management systems, protocols in dealing with students’ safety both when they are here and at home.”

In the early summer, the Archdiocese of Detroit’s return-to-school task force surveyed parents for their feedback and priorities. An overwhelming majority supported a return to in-person classes, with safety precautions in place. 

The archdiocese sent a survey to parents over the summer asking what was most important to them, Kullman said.

“We got great feedback about what they thought worked and didn’t work in the spring. That did a good job informing us what we could do, could not do and how to support a school, no matter what option they chose for teaching students,” Kullman said.

For as much as schools can prepare, administrators must still brace for the possibility that a COVID-19 outbreak might occur. Asymptomatic spreading at schools such as Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame have placed many administrators on high alert.

To head off outbreaks before they begin, De La Salle Collegiate in Warren is installing thermal imaging cameras at each of its main entrances to monitor students’ body temperatures in real time.

The technology is related to De La Salle’s daily automated health screening app, Clear to Go, which will screen students, staff and visitors to the school. Students with elevated skin temperatures will undergo further screening.

“While technology isn’t always perfect, the thermal cameras can offer a sense of comfort and security to parents, as well as faculty and staff members,” the all-boys school said in a news release. “The cameras, combined with a health-screening app, assigned seating in classrooms, and social distancing are some measures the all-boys’ Catholic school has taken to make traditional in-person classes safe and feasible.”

Our Lady of the Lakes fifth-grader Emelia Asai carries her supplies to the classroom. Students in the lower grades will have supplies assigned only to them, to be kept in the same location at all times throughout the day. 

On the low-tech side, schools are implementing a host of prevention techniques, from splitting up lunch hours for different grades, eliminating gathering areas and asking teachers — not students — to move between classrooms.

At Our Lady of the Lakes, elementary students have assigned boxes of school supplies that only they may touch, and must stay in the same place all day.

While older grades will still change classrooms, teachers are tasked with sanitizing desks and high-touch areas between periods.

“I teach in the same classroom all day, so in between each class I will wipe down all the desks with a disinfectant,” said Terry Zaleski, a mathematics teacher whose daughter also attends Our Lady of the Lakes. “Additionally, things like pencil sharpeners, staplers and common tools they might use in the classroom are sanitized. My average class size is 9, and the classrooms are very large.”

Zaleski said he feels safe returning to the classroom, knowing the precautions that are in place. “We’re much more socially distant here than in the common grocery store,” Zaleski said.

Teachers and students eager to be back

As head of school, Kenny takes seriously her duty to protect the welfare of every student at Our Lady of the Lakes — a task she takes regularly to the school’s patroness in prayer.

“The safety of my children, who go to Our Lady of the Lakes, is at the forefront of every decision I make,” Kenny said. “A lot of this is put to prayer, but by listening to prayers, listening to experts, we feel strongly this can be done.”

Parents drop off their children for school at Holy Redeemer School and Cristo Rey High School in southwest Detroit on Aug. 25. While Holy Redeemer is offering in-person classes, Cristo Rey students will complete the fall semester online. 

The precautions are extensive and the challenges are many, but teachers and administrators know the rewards of sparking the imagination in a student’s mind are well worth the preparations.

“The reward of the job we do is our students,” Kenny said. “Speaking for a lot of the staff, we struggled in March, April and May; there was this loss we felt. We weren’t with our students, face to face. We had them on screen, but we were missing that reward. Just being able to see our kids in the building gives us hope.”

For students, the new school year is an opportunity to reclaim a small semblance of normal. Much will be different, and plans can change. But walking through the school doors is a sure sign that there will be life after COVID.

“After being stuck in our houses for four months, you realize how grateful you are for everything,” Our Lady of the Lakes sophomore Asai said. “Nothing feels normal; going to the grocery store doesn’t feel normal anymore. But when you go back to school, in class with friends, you have that tiny piece of comfort like, ‘We’re going to be OK.’ Everything will be fine, and we will get back to normal.”