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Minn. Catholic schools begin to open their doors for in-person learning

By Myah Christenson

When Minneapolis Public Schools announced its plans for full-time distance learning this fall, Christian Ann Larson began searching for a new school for her 4-year-old.

“We just didn’t think that an all-digital environment would be the best way for her to be introduced to school,” said Larson, who instead decided to send her daughter to pre-K at St. Charles Catholic School in St. Anthony.

With many public schools across the state deciding on distance learning or hybrid instruction, some parents are turning toward Catholic schools. Private and faith-based institutions are not bound by the state’s guidance on reopening during the pandemic, and many are opting to start the school year with face-to-face instruction. As a result, some of these schools are seeing a surge in applications.

“When Minneapolis announced that they would be doing some kind of distance learning, our enrollment boomed,” said Paul Berry, principal of Our Lady of Peace in south Minneapolis.

On Monday, the first day of the school year, Our Lady of Peace welcomed 22 new families. There are waiting lists for almost every grade, with kindergarten the longest at 13 students.

“I’m going to do my best, my staff will do their best, to provide for them the best education and the safest environment, and we’ve spent so much time putting that together I’m comfortable doing that,” he said.

Bringing students back into the classroom as safely as possible prompted many changes at Our Lady of Peace. A committee of faculty, staff, parents and pastors within the school community came up with new protocols to minimize the chances of spreading the coronavirus at school.

The school will be following Gov. Tim Walz’s mandated mask order, for one.

Staff rely on walkie-talkies to coordinate bathroom breaks. The school is capping classrooms at 18 students, banning visitors and holding all physical education outside.

Each grade has a specific entry point through the gymnasium with a morning health screening to test temperatures. The gym is marked off with ropes that students must pass through before entering the main building.

“Our gymnasium is kind of going to look like TSA at the airport,” said Dave Marrese, Our Lady of Peace’s advancement director.

Staff refers to each classroom as a “family,” and like a family, those students will be exposed to one another.

“They’re going to come in close contact and share some things,” said Berry, the principal. “That’s nothing we can avoid totally.”

Close contact was one reason some parents have chosen to send their kids to virtual classrooms rather than in-person learning, Marrese said.

For those families, smart cameras are installed in each classroom so students at home can live stream. The school also invested in a system aimed at sanitizing the air every 30 minutes.

To cover the costs, Berry said the school has had “to be creative with where we pulled that money and placed that money, and new enrollment has helped as well to cover that.”

The ‘what if?’ game

Even with the precautions put in place, there are still concerns in keeping a safe environment for the students. New research from the American Academy of Pediatrics from the summer shows that the rate of coronavirus cases in children is increasing faster than among the general public, according to the New York Times.

Larson, the new parent at St. Charles Catholic School, balanced health concerns with keeping her 4-year-old daughter on track academically.

“Obviously there is a higher risk, but for us, the reward for in-person school is worth it for us,” she said.

Berry will be sending his own third grader and sixth grader back to the classroom at Our Lady of Peace and understands parents’ concerns about COVID-19. He knows he can make no guarantees of a full year of in-person classes.

“We play the ‘what if’ game every 15 minutes,” Berry said. “What do we do if, what happens if. … If something goes wrong or sideways, that’s what keeps me up at night.”