Catholic schools making preparations to reopen in August

The Diocese of Nashville’s Catholic schools are making preparations to resume in-person instruction in August but are proceeding with caution. 

“We’re anticipating and planning for a return to campus,” said Rebecca Hammel, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Nashville. “Everyone is ready to be together again; we’re ready to reunite the community again.”

But, Hammel said, “we will be able to jump into remote learning seamlessly,” if local health metrics show that is the safest option at the time. 

Hammel issued a letter to the Catholic school community on June 9 explaining some of the preparations that are under way. Hammel has developed a task force comprised of diocesan school principals and nurses, one a registered nurse and the other a nurse practitioner. 

“These professionals work with me to implement best practices according to the latest public health information,” she said. “Drawing from the guidance of the Nashville plan, our principals are coordinating measures for a safe re-entry under a variety of scenarios that may present themselves next year.” 

Hammel said that school administrators are reviewing lessons learned from the abrupt shift to distance learning in the spring. 

“A lot of teachers are doing professional development this summer to better prepare for distance learning,” she said. “We want to simplify the process for parents, teachers and students to make it a smoother transition and an easier one.”

Hammel is a member of Mayor John Cooper’s team which developed the “Nashville Plan: Framework for a Safe, Efficient, and Equitable Return to School,” a series of protocols that will guide Nashville schools for safely reopening. 

“The blended efforts of medical, public health and education experts yielded a comprehensive plan that focuses on the safety of the students and teachers,” Hammel said in her letter to the Catholic schools community. “I am encouraged by the work of this diverse group and look forward to the strong partnership as we navigate our way through this pandemic.”

While Catholic schools often work with other private and independent schools in the state, they don’t often collaborate closely with public schools. “We are really grateful they wanted the voice of Catholic schools to be represented” in the discussion of re-opening, Hammel said. 

Hammel was clear that Catholic schools will have more flexibility than Metro Nashville Public Schools in how they re-open, if they need to close, and will not all necessarily follow Davidson Country guidelines. Immaculate Conception School in Clarksville, or the Sacred Heart schools in Lawrence County, for example, “will look at their local frameworks for guidance on the conditions for re-opening,” Hammel said. 

If a case of coronavirus is identified in one of the Catholic schools, the one school can temporarily close if need be, and not the entire system, Hammel said. 

“We are aware that some folks need to be very cautious,” she said. For people who are in vulnerable health groups or who live with others who are, “we want to work with them to accommodate their needs,” Hammel said. 

Catholic schools in the diocese will be allotted federal funding through the CARES Act, filtered through the Tennessee State Department of Education, to support distance learning needs. 

“The Tennessee Department of Education has been very inclusive of private schools,” Hammel said, in disbursing the estimated $260 million in federal money received to support schools as they grapple with the fallout of COVID-19. “We are most grateful for that.”

Individual Catholic schools have also received a portion of the diocese’s $10.8 million received through the Paycheck Protection Program loans from the Small Business Administration. (See story on page 11 for more information on the PPP program.) 

Diocesan schools do expect a slight dip in enrollment from last year, “based on parents waiting to see about the return to campus, and to see if the economy recovers,” Hammel said. “There are a lot of variables out there.”

Diocesan schools in and near Davidson County were hoping for a boost in enrollment from the state’s Education Savings Account program, which will not be implemented this school year due to legal challenges. 

“We were very disappointed” to learn that the program would not move forward for the 2020-21 school year, Hammel said. The diocese and Catholic schools continue to support every parent’s right to choose the best school for their child, regardless of their zip code. 

“There are excellent public schools throughout the city,” Hammel said, but for families zoned into state-identified failing schools, “we want to assist parents who desire a different option.”

The diocese and individual parishes are committed to supporting Catholic school families who need some tuition assistance for the next school year, Hammel said. Principals are currently identifying families who might need additional support. “Parishes have been phenomenal in helping support the schools,” she said. 

While hundreds of Catholic schools around the country have announced permanent closures due to the economic fallout from COVID-19, “we are committed to keeping all our schools open,” said Hammel. “We are really fortunate in that way.”