Students and staff from St. Gregory the Great Academy, Hamilton Square, work under carnival tents. The tents allowed for in-person learning during the pandemic, creating a safe, outdoor environment. Mary Stadnyk photo
Students and staff from St. Gregory the Great Academy, Hamilton Square, work under carnival tents. The tents allowed for in-person learning during the pandemic, creating a safe, outdoor environment. Mary Stadnyk photo
The atmosphere around St. Gregory the Great Parish and Academy these days might evoke memories of caramel corn and the Tilt-a-Whirl. On the contrary, the red and white striped tents decorating the Hamilton Square campus are one of many creative, yet necessary pandemic precautions to help keep students safe.

School administrators in the Diocese knew going into the 2020-2021 academic year that if students and teachers were going to return in person to the classrooms, then a host of safety measures would have to be put into place.

Along with face masks, social distancing, adjusting schedules, desks with plexiglass dividers, better ventilation and more, some schools also made physical changes to their indoor and outdoor spaces. Empty classrooms and teacher’s lounges as well as bigger spaces like gyms, cafeterias, and science labs were converted into classrooms.

“It’s been an interesting year,” said Dr. Jason Briggs, principal of St. Gregory the Great Academy.

“If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that if something means a lot to you, you try and find ways to make it work,” he said, describing how the outdoor tents evolved after identifying the four “riskiest” times of the school day for possible coronavirus exposure  – arrival, lunch, recess and dismissal.

The tents were purchased through the company with which St. Gregory the Great contracts for the annual parish carnival, Dr. Briggs explained, and once the tents were in place, tables, chairs and equipment were added.

“We were outside from September to November, until the weather got cold, and now we are back outside during the spring months,” he said. Students remain outside for recess and lunch periods.

“What was most important for us here last summer was being able to return to school in-person,” Dr. Briggs said. “Using hybrid or remote-only learning is fine in an emergency, but it was not going to be our only way of learning. That is not a way of life in a school.”

Similarly, in Mother Seton Academy, Howell, the primary focus last fall was on how best to accommodate the eighth-grade class, which has 28 students, while social distancing.

We dont have a library anymore,” said Karen Juliano, principal, explaining that school officials had to look for ways to reconfigure existing space into a classroom. “That became our new eighth-grade classroom.” 

After experiencing a “very difficult stretch” at the end of the last school year, Robert Dougherty, principal in St. Catharine School, Spring Lake, said the goal for 2020-21 became “to provide in-person instruction, five days a week, regardless of all the challenges presented by COVID-19.”

In addition to creating smaller class rosters and installing a new HVAC system for the main building along with air filtration systems throughout the classrooms, the school converted its cafeteria into two separate classrooms and created nearly 200 mobile partitions to be utilized in other classrooms. 

“We had several families throughout the summer reach out to help us address many of our material and structural needs,” he said, “and I’m not quite sure what we would have done without their help.”

“While the preparation seemed to be quite daunting at times, I learned the importance of focusing on the details that are currently within your control as well as remaining flexible to embrace all of the constant changes that you’ll likely encounter at one point or another,” Dougherty continued.

“I’ve always found myself to be incredibly fortunate to be surrounded and supported by a community that is so dedicated to their parish school and this past year has certainly proven to be no exception,” Dougherty said. “Our doors were able to open in September because we are one big family that works together and we care deeply about the importance of providing our children with a quality, Catholic education.”