.- Catholic schools in Virginia’s Diocese of Arlington are open for in-person instruction, and finding demand to be so high that 150 more teachers are needed.
School officials say there is strong evidence that in-person schooling can be done safely, as long as proper protocols are followed, and children benefit from an in-person learning environment.
“Everyone agrees that learning takes place best done in person. And that’s simply just thinking in an academic sense,” Dr. Joseph Vorbach, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Arlington, told the Sinclair Broadcasting Group television news show The National Desk.
“The social, emotional wellness of children benefits greatly from their ability to be around one another and around adults who are helping them learn. The pursuit of that possibility is what drove us.”
Vorbach said plans to resume in-person instruction “relied a lot at the local level on the input of key stakeholders, and the key stakeholders are the teachers and the parents.”
“From the very beginning, the voices of the key folks were involved, and that’s how we got to where we were, with a lot of vigilance and flexibility,” he said.
As of the 2018-2019 school year, the diocese had about 12,500 students in Pre-K through eighth grade and 3,900 high school students across 37 diocesan elementary and middle schools and four diocesan high schools. Its total staff numbered about 1,800.
To help minimize the risk of viral spread at any in-person gatherings, experts have tended to stress the importance of wearing facemasks or other facial coverings, physical distance, and good hand hygiene. Well-ventilated rooms and buildings are also important.
The Arlington diocese’s schools have recommended mitigation actions for parents to take with their children before they leave home. The schools have implemented temperature checks in carpool lines, traffic patterns and mask protocols.
“We’re working together,” Vorbach said. “The gift of Catholic education is something that is cherished by all these folks, and trying to ensure that it could continue was a powerful goal.”
“For those who have been concerned or reluctant to return to in-person instruction, we now have a fairly robust amount of data that suggests that when the mitigation strategies are followed, schools can be very safe,” he said.
However, the diocese will also continue to operate a virtual school for any students unable to return to in-person instruction.
Nationally, 79% of parents of K-12 students want in-person learning, Gallup reported March 11.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has said both mitigation measures at schools and community-wide measures to limit coronavirus spread are “vitally important” to keeping schools safe. Viral transmission in schools tends to mirror the transmission rate in the broader community, though schools appear not to be a significant factor in community transmission.
Children appear to be less vulnerable to severe cases of coronavirus infection, while the elderly and those with underlying health problems are among the most vulnerable.
About 12.6% of coronavirus cases in the U.S. are among children. About 0.8% of children with a known case of COVID-19 have been hospitalized, while 0.01% with a known case have died. Children make up 1.8% of all coronavirus hospitalizations and 0.06% of coronavirus deaths – a little over 200 deaths – the American Academy of Pediatrics News reported in January, citing data from both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.
Coronavirus cases are believed to be undercounted in children because their symptoms are often mild.
Children also struggle with social isolation, anxiety, and disruption to their social lives and their education. Many have been forced to delay or skip ordinary medical and dental procedures like routine vaccinations and screenings, the American Academy of Pediatrics said.
In some major cities like Chicago, teachers’ unions have objected to the reopening of public schools until access to vaccinations became more widely available.
Vaccinations are expected to significantly diminish the spread of coronavirus, though there are concerns that more contagious variants could still emerge.
While the Arlington diocese said its schools have a long wait list for prospective students, enrollment at Catholic schools for the 2020-2021 academic year has seen a massive decline nationwide over the previous year.
A February 2021 data brief from the National Catholic Educational Association reported that enrollment at Catholic schools was down 6.4% for the 2020-2021 school year—the biggest percentage drop in enrollment since 1973.
The overall number of students at Catholic schools declined by more than 110,000 for the present academic year, and more than 200 schools closed after the previous school year. However, a large share of this decline was due to enrollment attrition at pre-K schools, and it is unclear what will happen to these trends post-pandemic.
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