Schools wrap up unusual end to academic year, as plans for fall are still being discussed

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PROVIDENCE — As the end of the school year approaches, many have reflected on an unconventional closing of a chapter and cautiously look ahead to the fall with a mix of hope and preparation.
Beginning in March, schools throughout the Diocese of Providence had to quickly transition to distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic precautions. The shift was a challenge, but overall a positive one for students and educators discovering together the best ways to bring traditional classes out of the classroom and into the home.
Fortunately, in recent years, technology had become commonplace in Catholic school classrooms and a regular feature of more progressive instructional practices, explained Catholic School Superintendent Daniel Ferris.
“Many schools had adopted Blended Learning, an educational approach that combines whole class teacher-directed, face-to-face learning with periodic personalized online instruction. This would prove beneficial to teachers adapting classroom methods to distance learning. Students familiar with Blended Learning had a similar benefit; they were already comfortable with computer-directed instruction, and many possessed the requisite habits of mind for sustained focus.”
Unfortunately, with the virus precautions and out of safety of the students and families, many milestone events like sports championships, prom, baccalaureate Masses and graduation had to be postponed this Spring. Hadley Bansal, 17, of Newport, a senior at The Prout School, shared that it’s times like these that make her so proud to belong to such a loving and supportive community.
“The Prout community has responded so well to these unprecedented times. They really are putting in every single ounce of effort they have into making this year as amazing as it would be if we were physically in school. All of the teachers are making sure we have the support we need and are being super kind and encouraging to us. They are all just as upset as we are, and feel really bad that this is happening.”
As a senior, Bansal is disappointed, but trying to find the positives in a difficult situation.
“No one expected this and it really is awful that our year has to end like this. But saying that, I have been trying to look more on the bright side of it. It happened and we have no control over it. You have to make the best of it. The Class of 2020 is one that will never be forgotten. Every single freshman going into college with you will have had the same experience that you did to end out the year, so we are not alone in feeling like this. It is okay to be sad about it…I hope that every person in the world comes out of this experience having a greater sense of life, and to live every day to the fullest.”
For high school seniors like Madison Gioffreda, 18, of Warwick, the ending of the school without the normal pomp and circumstance has left her with memories and mixed feelings.
The Prout School graduating senior shared that it is important for everyone to recognize that seniors are allowed to be upset that many milestones are being moved or cancelled.
“We understand that safety is a priority and we understand that life goes on, but we are still upset, and we should be allowed to be. I have seen so many comments on Instagram, under videos of seniors reminiscing on their best memories, of acquaintances lecturing them on the importance of our health, making us seem selfish. This is an unusual circumstance, and everyone is dealing with it differently. Personally, I am a complete extrovert, and being away from my friends, being unable to hug people, and missing out on our last days as kids, is awful. Not one person is feeling completely great right now, and we should not be shamed for that.”
She added that Prout staff will not give up hope — and neither will the students. Like many area Catholic high schools, Prout is working hard to ensure that many special events are rescheduled for later in the summer.
“What is extremely special about Prout is that we are truly a community. We genuinely want to see each other again. Many students look up to their teachers and want to hug them goodbye one last time.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Five weeks ago, the diocesan Catholic School Office formed a team of 15 Catholic school leaders with a goal to explore when and how to reopen schools in an effort to create a plan in uncertain times.
Together their mission is to consider everything from social distancing and flexible scheduling, to new approaches to delivering the curriculum. There will be a focus on planning how the school will pray together, bring back extracurriculars and reweave the social fabric of the school communities.
Catholic educators in the diocese are planning for schools to reopen, not knowing yet when or how, but they are modeling multiple possibilities, explained Superintendent Ferris.
“Hoping for the best and planning for the worst, they will be ready,” he said. “Health and safety are the priority. A full academic program with all the usual extracurriculars, grounded in and aspiring to the love of God in Jesus Christ, is the goal.”
The planning team is exploring several dates for reopening, including a mid-to-late summer opening with small groups of less than 10 students, with safety and behavioral protocols in place — masks, social distancing, frequent handwashing and classroom sanitizing.
If a mid-summer opening proves impossible, a late August to Labor Day reopening would bring back that traditional feeling of a school’s first day back.
“Perhaps this year, principals and teachers would spy fewer nerves and more bursts of joy,” said Ferris. “For those teenage students who are always reluctant to shake off the golden, dreamy days of summer, this could be the year they wake up early looking forward to school.”
But schools, aided by the planning team, have some thinking to do in the meantime, he added, with many questions still to be answered.
“How will schools return to capacity if classrooms are limited to nine or 10 students? Will some students attend on Mondays and Wednesdays and other students on Thursdays and Fridays? Or some arrive in the morning, others in the afternoon? Will there be physical education classes, lunch in the classroom and recess on the playground? What about arrivals and dismissals?
All of these questions are on the table, and even now, the planning team is asking the principals to find blueprints and start measuring classroom spaces,” said Ferris.
He said that schools may need to begin the school year in distance learning mode and push back a live, in-school start.
“Catholic school leaders have already started arranging their summer professional development offerings for teachers around improving their schools’ design, delivery and student experience of virtual learning,” said Ferris. “It’s no understatement to say it is not exactly how they’d like to begin the school year. However, if need be, they will be ready to move full-tilt into ‘virtual learning 2.0,’ with all students benefiting from its upgraded effectiveness.”
Until then, Ferris reminds families that summer learning is encouraged by every school for every student regardless of ability or progress — and this summer will be no different.
“Read. Read. Read. That’s most important. This builds a student’s vocabulary, comprehension and imagination. Students who read during the summer forget less and come back better prepared in the fall. Math review is beneficial as well. Every Catholic school will have summer learning packets and suggestions for students this summer.”
As a bittersweet year comes to an end, Ferris offered words of encouragement to the Class of 2020 facing this unexpected ending to their high school careers.
“We hope all graduates will see their disappointment turned to tears of joy and gratitude. We see all thing differently with time. Providence is preparing you differently for your future. You’re stronger because of it. You’ll prevail. We never lose hope. Find grace and let grace guide you forward.”