Catholic schools gradually reopening in Santa Clara County
Bellarmine College Prep teacher Ann Roemer teaches AP Physics. Photo courtesy of Chris Maciel and Bellarmine College Prep.

While most San Jose public school campuses will remain closed at least until January, Catholic schools are starting to welcome back students with sanitizing stations and wellness checks in place.

“It’s been a real boost for faculty to see kids on campus,” said Principal Kristina Luscher of Bellarmine College Preparatory, which opened Sept. 23. “Overall, the mood is upbeat but we all have masks on and are 6 feet apart.”

Santa Clara County remaining in the red tier of the state’s COVID-19 watchlist for 14 days allowed schools to reopen for in-person instruction with strict adherence to state and county guidelines. According to Santa Clara County Public Health, if the county is moved back to the purple tier, schools already open will not be required to close.

Within a few days of reopening, 16 instructors and 200 of Bellarmine’s 1,650 students attended classes across disciplines and grade levels as part of an in-person learning pilot program.

Classes are still mostly taught through distance learning with a handful of students receiving in-person instruction in a single class each day. Although having just four students sit in a classroom together might seem like a small step, that’s exactly the point.

“We’re keeping a very small group,” said Luscher. “We want to bring students back to campus slowly and cautiously.”

The pilot program provides teachers with the chance to hone an in-person/distance learning hybrid model of instruction and technology, as well as safety protocols.

“This allows us to start with one class at a time to learn along the way,” Luscher said.

Bellarmine staff are closely following the county’s COVID-19 requirements for returning students to school. The new guidance does not require testing or temperature checks but asks schools to monitor symptoms.

According to county health, all students and staff must be screened for symptoms daily but staff and students’ parents can conduct symptom screening at-home. Symptom screening can also occur on-site via self-reporting, visual inspection or a symptom screening questionnaire.

At Bellarmine, students complete an online wellness check before coming to school. Bellarmine recommends students participating in the pilot program be tested for COVID-19 and requires employees coming to campus to have COVID-19 testing monthly.

Luscher said staying up to date on county guidelines is one of her greatest challenges.

Bellarmine’s safety precautions start with educating its community about proper hygiene and well-fitting masks. Faculty crews clean and sanitize the campus throughout the day and each classroom has a sanitation station for teachers. Desks are 6 feet apart. Face shields and plexiglass podium shields, manufactured by the school’s robotics and makers lab, are provided for teachers. The air filtration system has been upgraded and classroom doors are propped open for better ventilation.

The high school will evaluate its pilot program Oct. 9, surveying families and employees. In its second quarter, starting Oct. 19, Bellarmine plans to expand opportunities for students on campus, adding science labs and faith groups to its current offerings. It hopes to bring half its student body back to campus in January, with two groups alternating days.

Before the state changed to the tiered and color-coded system, elementary schools could apply to county health for waivers to reopen. The Diocese of San Jose, which is similar to a school district, applied as a unit to open 26 of its elementary schools.

County health worked closely with the diocese, one of the largest groups to apply for a waiver, said Cynthia Shaw, Diocese of San Jose communications director.

Jennifer Beltramo, Diocese of San Jose superintendent, said the vetting process aided the schools in preparing to open safely. “While a waiver is no longer needed, our participation in that process ensured full vetting of each school’s reopening plan,” she said.

All of the Diocese of San Jose schools will begin in-person learning during the next several weeks but also continue to offer distance learning, Beltramo said.

“Our teachers have done a phenomenal job of finding new ways to foster interactions during distance learning but we know that it cannot equal the impact of being in-person,” she said.

Although some families left Diocese of San Jose schools to homeschool following sheltering in place, Beltramo said interest has risen for in-person instruction.

San Jose Unified School District choose not to reopen at least until January, citing COVID-19 testing and tracing as obstacles.

“Public health is requiring everybody in Santa Clara County, including schools, to report positive cases,” said Jennifer Maddox, spokesperson for San Jose Unified School District. “If we have an employee who tests positive… a teacher that’s teaching in a classroom, if they’ve come into contact with people throughout the day, we’re responsible for compiling that list, notifying those people and asking them to isolate at home. It’s the same thing the county is doing with contact tracing.”

Maddox said this would be especially difficult for middle and high schools because students change classrooms and mix together. Another challenge is the county requires teachers be tested for COVID-19 but they can only be tested between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., the time they are teaching.

“For a student to get tested, there’s really no public health plan,” Maddox said, “especially at the scale at which we operate at San Jose Unified. We’re still working through details around how we can bring students safely back to campus.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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