Catholic schools of diocese may return to in-person instruction as early as Jan. 5

Catholic schools around the Diocese of Peoria used a variety of ways to keep students engaged after they returned to remote learning only on Nov. 18. At Visitation Catholic School in Kewanee, for example, principal Wayne Brau and the teachers took turns reading books to the students, with videos posted to the school's Facebook page. Here, Mr. Brau shares his favorite book, "The Story of Ferdinand." Teachers may be reading stories directly to the students again as permission has been given to start in-person instruction on Jan. 5.

Catholic schools of the Diocese of Peoria have been given permission to return to in-person instruction as soon as Jan. 5, if their pastors, principals and chaplains deem it safe and advisable to do so. The announcement was made by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, and Coadjutor Bishop Louis Tylka in a letter dated Dec. 21.

This option would bring students back to the classroom two weeks earlier than originally planned after Christmas.

Diocesan schools have been engaged in remote learning only since Nov. 16, due to an escalation of positivity rates for COVID-19 and concerns over possible exposure to the coronavirus at large family gatherings over the Thanksgiving break. Because the same scenario was anticipated after Christmas, in-person instruction was not expected to resume until Jan. 19.

“The decision of when to return to in-person instruction and the way it will be communicated will be determined by each individual school’s administration.” — From Dec. 21 letter signed by Bishop Jenky and Coadjutor Bishop Tylka

In their letter, however, Bishop Jenky and Bishop Tylka said, “The decision of when to return to in-person instruction and the way it will be communicated will be determined by each individual school’s administration.”

They said remote instruction will continue for families who prefer this option during the pandemic.

PASSIONATE SUPPORT

The bishops noted that they were moved by the letters and emails they had received and said it was clear that everyone involved is dedicated and passionate about their Catholic schools.

“You have also been vigilant in observing the safety and hygiene recommendations that the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published to lower the risk of positivity and exposure rates within our schools and homes,” Bishop Jenky and Bishop Tylka wrote. “We are confident that our school communities have done everything that we have asked of you, and we are humbled by the many sacrifices that you have shared with us.”

To make a return possible, they said school personnel and families are expected to continue frequent handwashing, temperature scanning, social distancing and mask wearing throughout the holiday season. That includes following IDPH and CDC guidance on quarantining and isolation after travel.

“Should COVID-19 positivity and exposure rates increase, the return to remote-only instruction across our diocesan system of school will still be ‘on the table,’” the bishops said.

“THEY KNOW WHAT IS NEEDED”

Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Peoria, said the letter from Bishop Jenky and Bishop Tylka was sent out early in the Christmas break so the administrative teams in each school knew they had the option to return sooner rather than later to in-person instruction.

“We’ve tried to make sure that the pastors, the chaplains and the principals know that they don’t have to come back Jan. 5,” she told The Catholic Post. “They can use that week for professional development and then come back on Jan. 11, or they can stay remote only from Jan. 4 until Jan. 11 or Jan. 19 when they would come back in person. We’re leaving that up to them to make that best decision for their individual school.”

“The bishops were confident that the system-wide shutdown achieved its goal for the schools to reset, which made it easier to allow administrators the option to return to in-person instruction before Jan. 19.” — Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Peoria

While Weiss said the system-wide return to remote learning only before Thanksgiving was a good one because it allowed schools to “reset” as COVID-19 cases were on the rise, she acknowledged that they didn’t see the surge they were expecting afterward.

In addition, she said that because the Diocese of Peoria covers 26 counties, there were some areas where the number of positive cases were not as great as in others.

“The bishops were confident that the system-wide shutdown achieved its goal for the schools to reset, which made it easier to allow administrators the option to return to in-person instruction before Jan. 19,” Weiss said.

DOING WHAT’S BEST

In-person instruction is best for students, teachers and families, Weiss explained.

“You wouldn’t find a teacher or a principal who would say remote is the best way to learn,” according to the superintendent, even though the 42 schools of the Diocese of Peoria have come “light years” in how to deliver that kind of instruction since last spring.

“I think this is a true testament to the art of teaching. Teachers need to be with the students, they need that interaction,” she said. “The students also have the need to be with their classmates, to be with their teachers, to see and to learn and to ask questions.”

Weiss added that in conversations with the superintendents of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Dioceses of Belleville, Joliet, Rockford and Springfield there is concern about the social and emotional well-being of the students. Some are coping well, but some are not, she said, and families are also feeling the stress.

“But we’re in a worldwide pandemic and the main goal for all of us — and we’re praying very hard — is that this pandemic will come to an end at some point and we will be back in the schools for total in-person learning so we can continue to do what we do best — form them in the faith and educate them,” Weiss said.

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