Students ‘happy to be back together’ with start of school

Holy Rosary Academy third grade teacher Debbie Pillon, works with a student at the whiteboard of the school’s new outdoor classroom. Photos by Theresa Laurence

Earlier this month, the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Nashville moved forward with a return to the classroom and in-person learning, accompanied by a long list of safety protocols and precautions to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

So far, “all accounts are very positive,” from principals reporting on their schools’ reopening procedures, said Diocese of Nashville Superintendent of Schools Rebecca Hammel. 

They report that students “are very happy to be back together and have adapted easily to masks and social distance requirements,” she said. 

“Our principals are engaging all of the protocols, and to date we’re off to a great start,” Hammel said.

School in the age of COVID-19 can look and feel different.

On a recent weekday in the fourth-grade classroom at Holy Rosary Academy, art teacher Rose Wathen conducted a Cubist drawing lesson, speaking to the class through a microphone while her face was covered by a clear plastic shield. 

Third grade student Lily Coode, writes on a whiteboard while Pillon checks her work. Utilizing outdoor space is one way Holy Rosary and other schools in the diocese are adapting to in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

She moved around the classroom offering advice to the students, who were situated behind their own clear plastic desk shields. 

“It’s a lot,” said Holy Rosary Principal Kimber Halliburton, speaking about all the new precautions in place at the school this year. “But my goal is to have zero COVID cases here at Holy Rosary.” 

“We can’t control everything that happens outside school, but we can control the environment here,” Halliburton said. 

The new school year got under way with COVID protocols in place at Christ the King School in Nashville on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. Photo by Rick Musacchio

She and her staff are working hard to keep the building as clean as possible. Hand sanitizing stations are placed near main entrances and exits from the buildings and in high-traffic areas. Staff members spend hours every day spraying down high-touch surfaces around the school like doorknobs, light switches, and bathroom faucets. 

Additional precautions and adjustments in place at diocesan schools this year include: daily temperature checks, students and faculty wearing masks, expanded outdoor classroom use, spreading out into parish classroom space, and students eating lunch in their classrooms.

The diocesan Schools Office issued to all the schools guidelines for reopening, which were informed by local and state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control recommendations. 

Hammel served on a Davidson County task force that developed a plan for reopening schools. Dr. Alex Jahangir, Metro Nashville’s Coronavirus Task Force Chair, said he supports local Catholic schools returning to in-person learning. “Given the safety measures to be in place at the start of the year, I support the Catholic schools in their decision to return to campus in August,” he said in a statement.

Many schools have posted their protocols, tailored for their specific schools, on their websites for families to read. 

For many diocesan schools, lunchtime is one of the biggest logistical changes during the day.

“There’s really no kids sitting around the tables laughing and talking,” said Father Ryan High School President Jim McIntyre. Instead, students are spread out at tables inside the cafeteria and underneath a large tent set up in the courtyard to better accommodate social distancing recommendations. Lunchtime “looks different for sure” at Father Ryan this year, McIntyre said. 

Another difference this year is a big decrease in casual, after-school socializing. Unless students are involved in specific activities, like sports teams or band, “the campus empties out pretty quickly after school,” McIntyre said. 

Father Ryan students have not been able to have an all-school Mass on campus yet, or meet with their complete “house,” under the new house system implemented at Father Ryan this year, which divides the students, faculty, and staff into six different houses to offer additional mentorship and leadership opportunities.

Even though they can’t all come together exactly as they would like, students and faculty are happy to be back on campus with the restrictions in place. “The kids are so flexible and understanding,” McIntyre said. 

Father Ryan’s teachers, he said, “have done a heroic job of adapting.” About five percent of Father Ryan’s student body is opting for virtual learning at this time, McIntyre said, and teachers have “risen to that challenge” of incorporating those students into their live classes.  

St. Ann School is following many of the same protocols as Holy Rosary and Father Ryan, and “overall it’s gone pretty well,” said Principal Anna Rumfola. “We’ve definitely had some adjustments navigating arrival and dismissal,” she said, since those procedures had to be modified this year. Eating lunch in the classrooms has also been a challenge, she said.

But, “day to day, we are keeping the students safe, and doing all we can to make them feel loved and welcomed,” Rumfola said. 

“Everyone is excited to be back on campus, to have that structure and be together,” she said. 

At all the schools, the watchwords remain “patience and flexibility,” McIntyre said.