Katherine Frey The Washington Post
Most schools in suburban Maryland are shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic, but just after 8 a.m. the carpool line is busy at St. Jude Regional Catholic School. Near the front, Domini Whitney pokes his head out of a back-seat window as a school employee comes by with a forehead thermometer.
No sign of fever.
Soon the 7-year-old is bounding toward his second-grade class in a coned-off area on the blacktop. His face is covered by a Batman-decorated cloth mask as he joins his masked classmates. As the day begins, they recite the Pledge of Allegiance and say a prayer — outdoors.
“Everything is very contained, and we thought their plan was well thought-out,” said his mother, Sophia, who recalls a thorough look at the small Rockville school’s safeguards and practices before committing to in-person learning.
In an unprecedented school year when millions of students nationally are logging into computers from home for remote learning, St. Jude is not the norm. Classrooms are not empty. In-person instruction is not only offered — it’s provided five days a week for families who choose it.
By contrast, the public school system in Montgomery County — one of the nation’s largest — reopened with all-virtual learning for its more than 160,000 students. So did nearly all school systems in the state and many of the county’s private schools — Stone Ridge of the Sacred Heart, Holton-Arms, Our Lady of Good Counsel.
Montgomery County has urged against bringing students back for face-to-face teaching, but the experience of small contingent of schools like St. Jude that have opened with campus-based instruction may be a kind of bellwether of school days to come.
A number of private schools have plans to launch in-person instruction — to some degree — in coming weeks.
“It’s a brave new world,” St. Jude principal Glenn Benjamin said. “And to hear voices in the building again is so exciting.”
Children wear masks, and they keep exclusively to cohorts of seven to 16. Their desks are distanced, and no supplies are shared. There is no cafeteria. Teachers in masks give lessons that are live-streamed to students whose families prefer remote instruction.
But returning to school buildings is not without its risks.
A teacher at Holy Redeemer, a Catholic school in nearby Kensington, recently tested positive for the coronavirus, as did a student in the teacher’s class. Other students in the same class quarantined, officials said.
In all, Montgomery County health officials have looked into about 35 potential coronavirus-related cases at private and parochial schools. Fifteen of the school investigations involved positive test results, Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles said Friday.
The cases go back to mid-August, when two staff members at the Bullis School in Potomac tested positive before the year began, delaying its opening.
Gayles maintains that the numbers show it is not safe to hold in-person instruction in the county, which has more than 21,000 coronavirus cases and had a three-day average of 98 new cases a day as of Friday.
But private and parochial schools are making their own decisions on reopening, following a controversy in early August about whether Gayles could forbid private schools to reopen campuses for face-to-face instruction.
Three days after Gayles’s order, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) sought to invalidate it by amending an executive order he had issued. Gayles came back with a different order — then rescinded it after the state’s top health official entered the fray.
Some private and parochial schools shifted reopening plans, while others stayed the course.
Georgetown Preparatory School, an elite college-prep school in North Bethesda, reevaluated and delayed in-person learning until October at the earliest.
“Of course we were disappointed, but then we started seeing all of these failures on college campuses,” said Ally Bloom, who has a son at Georgetown Prep and said she appreciated that the school is focused on students and staff being tested before they return in person.
Given that people testing positive for the virus can be asymptomatic, she said, “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, up to 40 percent of those infected with the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19, do not show symptoms.
Kelly Branaman, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, said each of the system’s 54 parish schools created its own reopening plan based on parent interest in returning to campus, building capacity and configuration, and student enrollment.
Plans were guided by recommendations from federal and state health officials and an archdiocese task force.
“Everyone is trying to make the best decision they can,” Branaman said.
Nearly half of the 54 parish schools in Maryland and the District chose a blended approach that combined in-person and online learning, while 17 opted for all-online and 13 offer full in-person instruction as an option.
Some public education advocates say while it may be good that some students are benefiting from in-person learning, it is akin to pandemic learning pods — another way struggling families are left behind. Not everyone can afford private or parochial schools.
“Covid has exposed and exacerbated already existing disparities,” said Byron Johns, education chair of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP.
At St. Jude, Benjamin said about two-thirds of the school’s 220 students learn on-campus, while the rest are learning from home. The school’s 28 teachers work from school classrooms; three others did not return this year, including one who retired. Those who stayed on were focused on how to return safely, he said.
The school, which opened Aug. 25 and serves children from pre-K to eighth grade, has an advantage in its small size, he said.
It also is helped by a 1950s-era design: Classrooms have exterior doors, reducing the use of hallways. There is no central ventilation system, but rather individual heating and air-conditioning units that each serve only two classrooms.
In recent days, even the very young don’t seem to tear masks off or pull them down. Midmorning, when fifth-graders leave their classroom for a mask break, they may remove the face covering if they stay distant from others.
But almost no one does. Most play soccer or run around, masks in place. One girl takes a brief break, then replaces hers.
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During a mask break, fifth-graders play soccer with a makeshift goal but don’t shed their masks.
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Before the start of the school day, students listen to the national anthem, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and say a prayer.
Several parents said their children have accepted school life with masks. Whitney’s son kisses her goodbye through his mask at drop-off. A first-grade teacher greeted one child last week by delighting in the difference in his facial attire.
“Good morning,” she said. Then: “Oh, you’ve got a new mask!”
Four weeks into the school year, no one has tested positive or shown symptoms, Benjamin said.
“It’s a scary thing, but I’m really confident they’re doing everything they can to protect the kids,” says Cynthia Richter, mother of a kindergartner. “That’s all we can ask.”
Her son went to pre-K at the school and was happy to see friends again.
“He comes home smiling every day,” she said.
School leaders have rearranged furniture, invested in technology that allows for live-streaming and remade daily practices. Three temperature checks, including one at home, are done before classes begin and others are done when students visit a restroom.
“There are a lot of little details that went into this to make sure children are safe,” Benjamin said.
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Brady Swift, a sixth-grader, gets a temperature check before getting out of the car at the school.
Among its challenges: The school is still waiting on the delivery of student devices, paid for with federal funds. Families opting for remote learning must use their own devices, which has been hard on some who have multiple children who need to be in class, Benjamin said. With the delivery, the school should be able to cover those at home and go one-to-one in the building, he said.
This year, class sizes are smaller because some students are learning virtually. Everyone on campus is taking on extra responsibilities. Administrators teach classes and sanitize restrooms, the principal said. Teachers take turns monitoring bathroom breaks to make sure only one child is inside at a time.
St. Jude enrolls a racially diverse student body — 42 percent multiracial, 35 percent White, 13 percent Black and 9 percent Asian. Nearly 30 percent of the students identify as Hispanic.
Tuition is $8,150 a year, but some students get help from the state, the school or the archdiocese. Forty percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Katie Swift, a mother of two in Germantown who is a nurse practitioner at Shady Grove Hospital, said the school has been a constant in her son’s life.
Now her 11-year-old is back with classmates he has known since pre-K. The boy is partial to masks emblazoned with the design of the Maryland flag.
“I know what measures St. Jude has in place, and I trust them,” she said. “The scariest part was the beginning — trying to get comfortable with the process. Now, he just gets his temperature taken, and I keep driving.”
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