OLG begins classes

Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic School teachers demonstrate proper mask attire and social distancing that will be utilized to begin on-campus classes. Students returned to school Tuesday, Aug. 11. (Contributed photo)

Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic School began on-campus classes Tuesday, Aug. 11.

Principal Theresa Dent said that one of OLG’s main benefits during this time is its size. Class sizes are usually limited to 16-18 students, depending on the grade level, but the school reduced these numbers even more as needed to ensure social distancing. Fortunately, they were able to do this while supporting the families currently enrolled for the upcoming school year. OLG enrollment is frozen for the time being to ensure they can focus on the families in their care. The school’s enrollment was impacted by their decision to be an on-campus learning environment.

“While we knew there would probably be a few families that have medically fragile family members and thus could not allow their children to attend on-campus, we also knew we do not have the resources to continuously offer dual platforms, such as on-campus and remote learning, and have it meet our academic standards,” explained Dent.

The school does have a plan in place for supporting students quarantined temporarily and a remote learning plan, should the entire school need to return to this form of learning.

“We showed last year that we can turn on a dime if needed, and we learned a lot during the 4th quarter that will make us even better prepared should we need to follow that option in the future,” Dent said.

Logistical changes to the school day have been implemented, including a rotation schedule for classes to attend Mass, maintaining social distancing inside the church.

However, all classes will celebrate the Liturgy of the Word each day, either in church or in their classrooms.

“I can’t imagine starting a school day without taking time to contemplate God’s Word. It is such an integral part of who we are,” stated Dent.

The day will begin as they always have, with a breakfast program and the principal greeting students in kindergarten through eighth grade at their cars during the normal drop-off times. But there are also many changes to daily routines, which will create a new normal for students, parents, and faculty. All students, staff, and visitors will be required to go through a COVID screening prior to being allowed on campus. The screening includes standard COVID screening questions, wearing a mask, a temperature check, and hand sanitation. Visitors’ access to campus will be greatly limited, and parents will not be allowed to walk their children into class during the current situation.

While PreK4 students will not be required to wear a mask in St. Francis Hall, wearing a mask will be the norm when moving about inside the main buildings. To minimize the need to wear masks during normal instruction for kindergarten through fourth grade, Plexiglas barriers have been installed on the front of each student’s desk. While seated at their desks and inside their personal learning zone, is indicated by blue tape on the floor, students will be able to learn and perform work without wearing masks.

Prior to moving outside their personal learning zone, students will sanitize hands and place the mask back on their faces. Additional Plexiglas is being placed at the group reading tables, allowing the lower elementary teachers and students to see each other’s faces as they pronounce words during phonics lessons. Ancillary teachers for lower elementary will come to the classrooms instead of the students traveling to other classrooms.

Dent said because older students are more likely to contract and spread the Coronavirus, the OLG COVID-19 Task Force Team made up of doctors and nurses, recommended that students in middle school classes wear masks at all times when inside the school buildings. These students will also be socially distanced within the classrooms, and protocols will be in place for single traffic flow between classes, and extra disinfecting routines will be performed by students and staff throughout each school day.

Another big change will be the absence of a lunch-line and the delivery of lunches to individual students. For lower elementary grades, the students will eat at their desks. Middle school students will utilize St. Jude Hall, which has been completely revamped to provide 6-plus feet of social distancing when students are seated.

“It looks very open but also strange,” commented eighth-grade homeroom teacher, Susan De La Garza. “But at least the students will be able to eat and socialize without wearing masks. We will all need the break.”

Because students may also remove their masks when social distancing outside, per the OLG COVID Task Force guidance, recesses and PE classes have been scheduled throughout the day with the emphasis of holding these activities outside on the playgrounds or the middle school courtyard as much as possible.

“I am hoping to be able to take my students out to the playground to eat lunch sometimes, too. We all need that Vitamin D,” explained first-grade homeroom teacher, Cheryl Marwitz.

OLG also removed the drinking fountains and replaced them with bottle filling stations and added additional handwashing sinks and sanitization stations throughout the school.

“While singing the ABC’s is one option to pass the time for washing hands, we also timed prayers and will be encouraging the students to say an Our Father or other prayer while washing hands and pray for all those impacted by the virus,” said OLG office manager, Annette Matula.

With the COVID-19 Task Force Team’s guidance, the school was able to set up protocols on how to respond to a student developing COVID-like symptoms during a school day. With the safety protocols implemented, interactions between students and faculty on campus are considered low exposures that do not require quarantine. A student displaying symptoms will be sent home immediately along with any siblings.

“While we hope the family does not have COVID, we will respond as if they do and perform additional deep cleaning measures for the areas impacted so that everyone else can continue to be on campus,” explained Dent. “The OLG COVID-19 Task Force Team will also be informed immediately to advise the school on any additional steps that may be needed to keep the school population safe and following all governmental guidelines.”

Principal Dent expressed her gratitude to the people who have helped OLG prepare for the coming school year, including doctors, nurses, alumni, Boy Scouts, local businesses, and especially the Mariner faculty and staff, who have been working through the summer to make the start of a new school year in these unprecedented times possible.

“All the preparation at OLG has cost thousands of dollars and hundreds of faculty and volunteer man-hours,” she said.

The reason for this effort is that the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with the goal of having students physically present in school. 

“It’s so important in the current situation to take care of children’s emotional as well as physical health,” explained Dr. Jeannine Griffin, who is a pediatrician and member of the OLG COVID-19 Task Force. “The Task Force has worked closely with the school to make every effort to ensure that the children feel safe as well as be safe.”