Hawaii’s Catholic schools were among the first to open their doors to students for in-person classes in August, and the verdict as the semester draws to a close is “so far, so good.”
“Parents want their kids in school,” Catholic schools Superintendent Llewellyn Young said. “And so we recognized that, and we tried to make that the primary option. And lo and behold, they took it.”
Catholic schools started planning in the spring, tried out their protocols to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in the summer and were ready to roll with in-person instruction in August, he said, even as others held off because of the coronavirus pandemic.
PHOTOS: Catholic schools offer in-person classes despite the pandemic
“Our schools have been so successful, and I am just so proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish,” Young said in an interview. “They’ve done a phenomenal job.”
Only six students in Hawaii’s Catholic schools have tested positive for COVID-19 out of a total enrollment of 6,043 in kindergarten through 12th grade, he said. There were also scattered cases among school employees, but he did not have a total.
“To my knowledge, none of the cases were transmitted or contracted on any Catholic school campus,” Young said. “We pray this trend will continue, but even if it does occur, I believe firmly that the schools have appropriate policies in place to manage these incidents effectively and minimize the impact it may have.”
“I can report that in all cases, school COVID plans and protocols were practiced to ensure that the virus did not impact the campus,” he said.
Catholic elementary and middle schools are generally offering full-time on- campus instruction for families who choose it, he said, while the high schools are largely using a blended approach where students work part time from home, independently or on group projects.
Damien Memorial is the only one of the 20 Catholic schools statewide that offered only virtual learning this semester, citing the preferences of its families.
Parents with children in elementary and middle school, in particular, seem to appreciate the chance to send them to regular school, rather than parking them in front of a screen at home and vying for space, attention or peace and quiet.
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When Mary, Star of the Sea School in Kahala opened its campus Aug. 3, parents had the choice of sending their kids to school full time or having them learn remotely from home. Out of 185 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, just 35 chose distance learning. Next semester, just 10 will do distance learning as more students flock to campus.
“They’ve seen the school in action for two quarters, and, knock on wood, everything has been great — not a hiccup in terms of illnesses,” said Principal Margaret Rufo. “Whatever we are doing is working.”
Students all wear masks, even the kindergartners; desks have plastic shields and are spaced well apart; windows are open for ventilation; and students are kept in small groups. A crew of parent volunteers checks temperatures as kids arrive. The school has always had small class sizes, and its 14-acre campus easily accommodates physical distancing.
“We have a clear order of things that happen from the time the kids step out of the car to the time they come into my class,” said John Terry, who teaches science to fourth and fifth graders. “Even myself being autoimmune-compromised, I’m not worried about it. The kids have risen to the occasion, and they do a good job of making sure that they follow the rules.”
“The school’s obviously invested a lot of money and time into giving us extra hand-washing stations and the other things that we need,” he added. “I’m just happy to be back in the classroom and not behind a computer anymore.”
Rufo said Star of the Sea has depended on a commitment by everyone to follow safe practices both on and off campus.
“It takes a partnership, and everyone has to be on the same page,” she said. “I feel that is what has made us truly successful.”
“I walk into the classrooms and it brings tears to my eyes,” she added. “I watch these kiddos and they are working so hard. I look at the teachers and the dedication they’re showing. I look at my parents, how understanding they’ve been, how supportive.”
Kindergartner Mackenzie Baldwin, 5, said she’s happy to be at school rather than learning through a computer at home like her older brother.
“I really like playing with my friends,” she said. “And I like to learn a lot, and I’m getting better at things by learning how to do them better. And I like the school lunches that I get.”
Her father, Brian, said he hopes her big brother will be able to return in person to Hahaione Elementary School in January. Asked how the semester has gone at Star of the Sea, he said, “Fantastically.”
“Mackenzie has 10 people in her class, and they get to spread out,” he said. “It’s great.”
Star of the Sea has a relatively small enrollment, but even the largest Catholic school in the state has roughly half of its student body back on campus. Maryknoll School has 1,013 students in kindergarten through 12th grade this year and gave them a choice of learning mode.
Eighty percent of students in the lower school opted to attend in-person every day, while 20% are tuning into their classes from home. The figures were reversed among high schoolers. Just 20% chose to attend in person on the high school’s hybrid schedule, which has half of them on campus at a time.
“Our teachers are superstars right now,” said Shana Tong, Maryknoll’s interim president. “They are teaching kids that are at home on their computer, and they’re teaching the students that are live in their classrooms.”
“The key for us is we’ve been planning this for a long time,” she said. “The summer school really helped us because it gave us the proper protocols.”
Those policies are similar to other campuses, from masking to sanitizing and distancing. Student temperatures are checked before they get out of their cars and again in the classroom, she said.
Young, the Catholic schools superintendent, said there was some trepidation across all the campuses about opening up to in-person instruction this fall.
“There was a lot of fear, there was a lot of angst,” Young said. “The faculty were afraid. But we had to come together as school communities and feel confident about what we were doing. Each school has a COVID response team to make periodic weekly adjustments if necessary.”
On Nov. 16, for example, Maryknoll’s high school switched to virtual learning for two weeks after two faculty members tested positive for COVID-19. Tong confirmed said the cases were not connected. The lower school continued in person throughout, and the high school has since resumed its blended schedule.
“We have always been extremely transparent with our families,” Tong said. “That has been really key in establishing our trust.”
The pandemic hasn’t caused any clear trend of students shifting among school systems in Hawaii. Instead, enrollment dropped across the board this fall compared with last, both in public and private schools. Some families decided to home-school; others may have moved out of state or just not registered their kids at all.
Enrollment in Hawaii’s public schools fell 2.6% to 174,704 this year as compared with last. Preliminary data from the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools shows private school enrollment dipped by 3.9%, but the official count is not until spring.
Catholic school enrollment declined by 2.5% for students in kindergarten to 12th grade. Two small parish schools — St. John the Baptist in Kalihi and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ewa Beach — closed in June, their finances worsened by the pandemic.