Back to School: Learning in a New World

In a season marked by great uncertainty, decisions are difficult for everyone – and educators, in particular, recognize that there are no simple solutions. 

Still, the show must go on. After all, education is more important than ever in this new world. 

After taking the various needs of students and teachers into account, prayerfully considering different options alongside other Triangle-area Catholic schools, and reviewing guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, The Franciscan School (TFS) has decided to move forward with resuming in-person classes – with some important modifications in place. 

In light of the CDC’s recommendations for reopening schools, TFS examined its available space and personnel and determined it would resume on-campus instruction – but with numerous adjustments and safeguards in place. And because TFS recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all option for its families, the school will offer an online option for students as well. 

“I can’t say enough positive things about how our leadership team has handled this challenge,” says Mae Villanueva , whose family has been with TFS for five  years now. “They have communicated with clarity and transparency and I have no doubts that every decision has been made with sincere care and concern for the health and safety of our entire community.”

For the upcoming school year, TFS’s on-campus plan involves smaller cohorts that allow students to maintain social distancing recommendations. Given the space available, kindergarten through sixth grade will operate on a regular schedule, while grades seven and eight will alternate days on campus. 

“As we considered the various options, we assessed how we could bring students back to campus and be reasonably assured that we could keep faculty, staff and students safe,” says Mike Watson, principal at TFS. “While our new plan will look completely different from what we normally experience, ‘different’ will still be a high quality academic experience in a Catholic atmosphere where faith and service for others are emphasized.”

To minimize exposure to others, teachers will rotate throughout the school as students remain in their classrooms. To prevent mixing of cohorts, students will remain in their cohorts for lunch and recess, and after-school programs and athletics have been cancelled. Meanwhile, TFS cultural events, like daily morning prayer, will resume in a virtual format. 

“We are so fortunate to have the facilities and personnel available to make this work,” says Ann Giannini, who has taught at TFS for 18 years. “I am so excited to head back to school and meet my fourth graders. And I’m looking forward to finding creative ways to deliver the curriculum that are both fun and effective.”

Though it will be a significantly less active environment than usual, TFS is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that in-person instruction does not compromise on safety.

“As a teacher, I feel safe with all the procedures in place. Administration has taken all the necessary precautions to protect our students and faculty,” says Giannini. “We will teach children to properly wear masks, make sure our students do not share desks or supplies and ensure that hands are washed regularly. Above all, I will work to make my students feel safe, comfortable and loved – all while continuing to give them a strong education and helping them grow as individuals.”

Understanding that it may be difficult for younger students to remain in their seats for longer periods than usual, TFS will provide some classes with wiggle seats to give students more movement. Additionally, students will continue to have special classes like music, art, PE, drama and media to promote physical activity and engagement. 

And while the logistics of each school day will look different than before, the curriculum, material and quality of education will remain. 

“I anticipate a variety of changes in my classroom this year,” says Tom Harmon, who teaches middle school math at TFS. “But we have an awesome group of educators navigating these changes. Plus, the foundation of learning in a Catholic setting will continue to be the same. Like always, my priority is to help the students who dislike or are intimidated by math to like math – and help those that like math to love math!”

Liz Michel, whose family has been with TFS for eight years, found that sending her children back to campus was the right decision for her family.

“After reviewing guidance from the state and Diocese, we decided to move forward with on-campus instruction with cautious optimism,” Michel says. “Each family must determine which choice is best for them and their situation. We’re all making decisions every day based on the information we have and based on our own needs. And decisions we make today may change tomorrow, based on new or different information. ”

Other families at TFS, like the Villanuevas, have decided that the online option is the right fit, as it offers additional safety while still maintaining the same curriculum and standard of education. 

“We weighed all of the knowledge available to us and decided that online instruction is best for our family,” Villanueva says.

While the decision to opt into the online option was a personal one for Villanueva , she hopes her family’s decision will be a blessing to other families at TFS, too.

“It’s our hope that by staying home, we will help lessen the risks for the families who have less flexibility and need their kids to attend school in person,” Villanueva says. “And while we’re sad that we can’t all be together in person, my third grader is excited about getting to sleep in later. Her commute down the hall will be pretty great.”

For the TFS families who do opt into the online option, they can rest assured that teachers are being proactive about how to keep them engaged and included in the TSF community. 

“For both our on-campus and online students, TFS will look different this year. On campus, it will be a less active environment – and online, it will be a more interactive environment,” Watson says. “For our students learning remotely, we’ll be mindful about including them in class discussions and we’ll take special care to acknowledge and answer their questions. They’ll have access to faculty whenever they have concerns or need additional help.”

Whatever format families choose, TFS is committed to providing an excellent education to each and every student and making sure the Franciscan community grows together during these strange and difficult times. 

“Our children love TFS and can’t wait to start back – but they are admittedly a bit apprehensive about how it will all work,” Mike says. “But having a universal plan across the Dioceses and an amazing network of teachers and administrators navigating these uncharted waters gives us continued confidence about returning to campus.” 

As parents prepare their children for the changes ahead, Harmon offers a word of advice. 

“I am super excited about this school year, but I recognize that this is a difficult and anxious time for students. My suggestion, as a teacher and a parent, is for mom and dad to have a very open two-way communication with their child. Your child has been exposed to many worries and probably understands more than you realize. Listening to their concerns and assuring them with facts – including the precautions TFS is providing – will help. And of course, reinforce with prayer.”

Whatever lays ahead, TFS is prepared to continually assess the situation in North Carolina, make adjustments as necessary and communicate frequently and openly. 

“As we look to the new normal, we remain committed to keeping the health, safety and success of our people as our top priority,” Watson says. “We pray and hope for another great year of faith, academics and service here at The Franciscan School.”

For more information about the TFS reopening strategy, please contact Mike Watson, Principal at The Franciscan school at Michael.Watson@stfrancisraleigh.org