Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York are on track to safely reopen next month by following guidelines established by federal and state health authorities and a “blueprint” outlined by a panel of experts convened for that purpose, said the superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.
Superintendent of Schools Michael Deegan, in a wide-ranging phone interview with Catholic New York this week, said Catholic schools in the archdiocese would be ready to open just after Labor Day, with pastors, principals, teachers and staff on track to complete what he termed “a monumental task” by continuing their focused efforts “to ensure the health and safety of the children.”
The “blueprint” to which Deegan referred is a 41-page reopening plan released to principals at individual schools last month. It represents a months-long effort of the schools’ Reopening Advisory Council, which brought together experts from various professional backgrounds including health care, epidemiology, risk management, health and safety, facilities management and education, he said.
For the past month, principals and pastors at Catholic schools have been “working feverishly” by using the data and information in the plan to craft individual reopening plans for their schools, the superintendent said.
The preparation included the purchase of health and safety supplies, ranging from facemasks and sanitizing supplies to signs emphasizing the necessity of social distancing, Deegan said. Air filtration systems are being tested, with special attention given to air conditioning units in school buildings.
Another prime consideration is adherence to guidelines of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for social distancing, especially relating to the arrangement of desks and other equipment and furniture in the classrooms.
Deegan said the reopening plan has been “well received” by the schools, with principals and pastors expressing gratitude for “the professionalism, precision and detail” marking the guidance.
Guidance provided by the state Department of Health continues to point to a September opening, and Deegan said Catholic schools in the archdiocese would be ready to open on Sept. 8 or 9, depending on their location.
“We have put in place all the protocols to be able to open the week after Labor Day,” Deegan said.
Another significant challenge is making sure each classroom in every school is equipped with the technology to provide in-school instruction as well as “synchronized and asynchronized remote learning for those children whose parents have chosen to keep them home for safety reasons.”
The integration of additional technology, from smartboards to microphones and laptops, was an “enormously complicated” and expensive project to accomplish that is not without potential hurdles in the early stages.
Deegan said it would be unrealistic to roll out an expanded technology menu utilizing increased bandwidth without experiencing some early glitches. The only way to fully test the system is when school opens, and the superintendent appealed for patience from parents and teachers as technical challenges are addressed, especially in remote instruction.
During the interview, the superintendent also addressed open questions related to school finances. He said Catholic schools are still short, by “tens of millions of dollars,” in their share of CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program funding that Congress passed in the spring, saying the archdiocese’s schools have received no such money to date.
Despite clear directions from the U.S. Department of Education on how the funding should be used, public school districts in many states are not complying with the regulations. New York City has joined in a federal lawsuit against Catholic schools receiving any CARES Act money, Deegan said. Last week, an appellate court judge in Washington state issued an injunction prohibiting the release of any CARES funding to religious schools.
“The intent of Congress was to give that money to public schools and private schools that were affected and impacted by the pandemic,” Deegan said. “And now, all of a sudden, the public schools are saying that we’re not entitled to the money.”
The superintendent said he has personally expressed his displeasure about the city’s stance to New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza, and said Cardinal Dolan has also done the same with Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Regarding the Heroes Act, which stalled before Congress took its summer recess, Deegan said he “remains optimistic” that Republicans and Democrats can put aside their differences to approve funding that would help both public and religious schools to recover from the toll the coronavirus took on their operations.
There is precedent, such as after Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, when Catholic schools did receive such benefits, Deegan said. “Our Catholic schools deserve and are entitled to additional funding to reopen our schools and to continue to support our schools going forward.”
The coronavirus pandemic, from its arrival in New York in March, has “tested” the Catholic school system in the archdiocese as “never before,” Deegan said.
“We’re proud we’ve risen to the challenges presented by the pandemic,” he said. Applying the same “grit and tenacity” to the work ahead enabled Deegan to say he was confident the Catholic schools of New York “will face and overcome any challenge, any roadblock, any difficulty that comes our way” because of the people that make up our school—our pastors, our principals and our very dedicated teachers.”
The financial crisis precipitated by the pandemic resulted in last month’s “devastating” decision to close 20 Catholic elementary schools, which Deegan called “the hardest thing that anyone could possibly do.”
In September, an enhanced social-emotional learning module will be introduced to the curriculum for all students in the Catholic elementary schools. The Archdiocese of New York Drug Abuse Prevention Program (ADAPP) was the “architect” in the development of the expanded module, Deegan said.
“It’s never been more appropriate than at this time,” added the superintendent, noting the disconnection students learning at home last spring had from their usual school community during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This fall, Catholic elementary schools in Rockland County will institute a countywide special education program in all schools there.
Also, several Staten Island schools will enter their second year providing special education instruction, including at the newly merged Father Vincent Capodanno Catholic Academy.