Diocesan Catholic Schools open

The first day for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Venice was Aug. 9, 2021 and encompassed the usual mix of excitement, tears (children and parents) and reunions among friends.

“Love you!” “Miss you already!” “One more hug!” “Have a great day!” “Have fun!”

These were some of the words from parents and students as the first day carline was full of stops and starts at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Port Charlotte. While the parents tried to figure out the proper carline procedures the students emerged from their respective family vehicles with ubiquitous backpacks and all having a bounce in their step and enthusiasm to get to class. Of course, there were a few stragglers who weren’t quite certain where their first class was, but teachers and middle school-aged escorts led the way.

For the youngest students, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, some parents escorted their child into the classroom. Following a few last “First Day of School” photos, the parents left and everyone quickly settled into their seats. The teachers introduced themselves and expressed their excitement for the start of the new school year. Finally, the children, some new to the school, some longtime students, were introduced to the classmates – aka, their new friends.

A morning assembly in the courtyard, beneath the clock tower of St. Charles Borromeo, put the students in the right frame of mind for the day and the Academic Year as everyone joined in morning prayers, the Pledge of Allegiance, and a few birthday announcements. Then it was off to the classroom to learn and grow spiritually and academically.

The 15 Diocesan Catholic schools work conscientiously to provide Christ-centered learning experiences that are transportable to the real world and provide the opportunity for children to develop life-long learning skills and to be successful beyond the classroom.

Father John Belmonte, SJ, Diocese of Venice Superintendent of Catholic Education said the 2021-2022 Academic Year began with enrollment in excess of 5,100, a more than 15% increase over the previous year. In fact, Father Belmonte said 10 Diocesan schools have wait lists and the others are seeing enrollment reaching levels not seen in more than a decade.

“There was a focused effort to let the community in on the secret that Diocese of Venice Catholic Schools provide a top-notch education at all grade levels,” Father Belmonte said. “There are exciting things happening in our schools and families are starting to take notice.”

That excitement includes the expansion of the STREAM (Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Arts and Math) model in all classrooms. This is part of a larger partnership with FIRST® (For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the leading robotics competition in the world. This project, fully supported through the generosity of Bishop Frank J. Dewane, will be placing students ahead of the curve in primary fields while continuing to promote core Catholic virtues by helping students to develop cognitive thought processes and gain skills such as leadership, communication, complex problem solving, teamwork and creativity.

Another professional development effort for faculty and teachers is focused on addressing students with special needs. This is an important multi-phased effort to identify students who have difficulty learning in a traditional setting. The goal is to identify these students and provide them with the proper support necessary to ensure their success both academically and personally.

In addition, Diocese Catholic schools will continue to build their devotion to St. Joseph, as part of the ongoing “Year of St. Joseph.” This will be accomplished through an initiative planned to begin in October and will include bringing prayer and devotion to the home.

The first day of the new year was also a reminder that the global Pandemic was still present in society. Therefore, the optional mask policy was adjusted due to the severity of the Delta variant of the coronavirus. The temporary policy change, which includes a weekly review, also allows parents the option to choose online learning for their child.

Some parents expressed their concern with the temporary policy change by reaching out by phone, email and social media to both Bishop Dewane and Father Belmonte. Some even gathered at two schools while a few visited the Catholic Center. Father Belmonte personally spoke with many parents and reached out to others to explain how the decision came about.

As Father Belmonte and Bishop Dewane both noted in correspondence to families, it is the responsibility of each Diocesan Catholic school to ensure the safety of all students. As noted, the temporary change will be revisited on a weekly basis. When the health situation improves, masks will again become optional but highly encouraged.

Diocesan Catholic Schools open

The first day for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Venice was Aug. 17, 2020 and encompassed the usual mix of excitement, tears (children and parents) and reunions among friends. The necessary differences for the 2020-2021 Academic Year also included wellness checks, face coverings, hand washing and social distancing.

Father John Belmonte, SJ, Diocese of Venice Superintendent of Catholic Education, was present at the Incarnation carline and introduced himself to students and families wishing all a blessed year as a passing rain shower created a double rainbow over the school.

“Welcome back to school,” Father Belmonte said. “Thank you for choosing Incarnation, the best education for your child.”

Unlike previous opening days, parents were not allowed to escort the youngest children to the classroom, causing a few anxious moments. However, even the most upset student calmed as they took in the colorful surroundings of their new home.

At St. Joseph Catholic School in Bradenton, Principal Deborah Suddarth was proud of the work her faculty and staff did to guarantee the opening of the school went smoothly. To ensure everyone is following and understanding the new rules, traffic patterns and other changes, St. Joseph, as with many other Diocesan Catholic schools, opted to split the opening over two or three days.

For example, the first day for each classroom included a group tour of the school and comprised of locating all hand sanitizing stations; finding and learning how to use the hands-free hand washing stations; locations of new hands-free drinking fountains; and practicing how to walk as a group standing six feet apart. To aide this process, decals of eagle claws are spaced in neat rows throughout the campus with inspirational messages to live by, such as: Pray, Learn, Give, Obey, Forgive, and more.

“It is a learning process for everyone, but the students will adapt quickly,” Suddarth said. “When the little ones came in, you could see behind the masks and in their eyes how excited everyone was to be back. This is a great day. I got two thumbs up from many of the young ones who said they were excited and ready for school.”

When asked, students were universally glad to be back after being out of the classroom since mid-March. All said they missed their friends and teachers.

Approximately 85 percent of Diocesan Catholic school students returned to in-classroom instruction while the balance have opted for synchronous at-home instruction. This means what is taught in the classroom is also accessible to students learning from home.

The new student cohort model implemented in the Diocesan Catholic schools keeps students in one classroom most of the day while teachers switch classes. This also limits large group interactions and will make it easier if quarantining is necessary.

With the need to maximize social distancing, each school is using its indoor and outdoor space differently. This includes smaller classroom sizes; individual desks versus shared desks; spreading out as much a practical; and instruction outside or in gymnasiums as needed. Where six feet of distance is not possible, face coverings are always required.

Catholic Schools ready to open

Each of the 15 Diocese of Venice Catholic Schools is ready to reopen for the 2020-2021 Academic Year.

In just a few days, on Aug. 17, 2020, the students will be returning to the classroom for a fresh start for in-classroom instruction. Naturally, the return to school comes in the midst of the global COVID-19 Pandemic so the first day may look different than in the past but the joy of returning will be real for teachers, students and parents alike. An estimated 85 percent of parents requested in-school classes, while 15 percent prefer the virtual option.

While everyone will be wearing face masks or coverings, and there will be enforcement of social distancing at every opportunity, the schools have been transformed to ensure each student receives the quality Catholic education they deserve.

Using a comprehensive reopening plan from the Diocese Department of Catholic Education as a basis, each school has its own reopening plan to reflect its unique situation. These factors include: school layout; arrival and dismissal procedures; a reimagining of the use of indoor spaces including classrooms; the implementation of the student cohort model which minimizes the interaction of students; health checks; alternative learning opportunities; comprehensive cleaning protocols; and so much more.

The introduction of the Diocesan School Reopening Plan opens with a statement from Father John Belmonte, SJ, Superintendent of Catholic Education: “Over the past four months, we have learned in a deeper way, the value and importance of our Catholic Schools. As we prepare to reopen our schools, let us remain focused on Christ who is the reason for our schools, the reason we teach, and the reason why we will gather, prudently and safely.”

All Diocesan Catholic schools will offer an alternative at-home learning opportunity for students in high risk populations. Those who have chosen synchronous at-home learning, do have the freedom to switch to traditional face-to-face learning during the school year. Those decisions will be made with the school principal. In addition, if a student needs to quarantine at home, this at-home learning option will be available to that student until he or she can safely return to school.

In preparation for reopening, teachers and staff returned to St. Elizabeth Catholic School in Naples Aug. 4, 2020. There, Principal Maria Niebuhr reviewed safety protocols and welcomed everyone with inspirational messages of optimism, faith, gratitude and teamwork. In addition, Father Casey Jones, Administrator of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish, gave a special blessing for everyone and then blessed every classroom with holy water. The school also offered an online opportunity for parents, students and supporters to sign-up and participate in a novena prayer for the teachers and students.

At St. John Neumann Catholic High School in Naples, the teachers are not the only ones preparing for a great school year. The House Captains (seniors who will serve as student leadership throughout the school year) are hard at work making sure that the Salesian Spirit is shining through all the adjustments being made to ensure the campus remains a place that is a home, a school, a Church and a playground.

Meanwhile, St. Joseph Catholic School in Bradenton is installing social distancing decals throughout the campus with inspirational messages to live by, such as: Pray, Learn, Give, Obey, Forgive, Respect, Honesty, Gratitude and more.

St. Mary Academy in Sarasota is offering its students the opportunity to purchase facemasks emblazoned with the school logo, enhancing the shared experience and the sense of community for everyone.

Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School in Sarasota got creative when planning to ensure social distancing. The school quickly raised the money to install outdoor academic spaces – two large tents, with tables and chairs, will be used for both classes and for the lunch period and provide some comfort from the elements.

These are just a few of the examples of the monumental effort being taken to reopen the Diocesan Catholic School on Aug. 17. To learn more about Diocese of Venice Catholic Schools, please visit www.dioceseofvenice.org/education.