Students return to St. Germaine Catholic School Aug. 31 for daily, in-person learning. Students entered the building one at a time and maintained social distancing while waiting their turn.

Students return to St. Germaine Catholic School Aug. 31 for daily, in-person learning. Students entered the building one at a time and maintained social distancing while waiting their turn.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Catholic school students head back to class in St. Clair Shores

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published September 3, 2020

 Third grade teacher Colleen Maciejewski welcomes a student to the first day of school.

Third grade teacher Colleen Maciejewski welcomes a student to the first day of school.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


ST. CLAIR SHORES — With backpacks in tow and masks on their faces, hundreds of children headed back to the classroom in St. Clair Shores.

While the public schools in the city have decided on plans that will provide for virtual instruction or a blend of in-person and remote learning, Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit have largely gone back to entirely in-person classes.

“The main reason it’s even a possibility is because of our smaller class sizes,” said Julie DeGrez, principal at St. Germaine Catholic School, 28250 Rockwood St. “With that, we are able to follow the distancing rules.

“I, personally, am very excited and happy to be back. (The students) bring the energy back into the building and it’s exhilarating. It’s just confirmation of why (I) and the other teachers do this.”

The Archdiocese of Detroit issued a COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan in July for local Catholic schools to follow in making their plans to return to school that followed the state of Michigan’s MI Safe Schools 2020-21 Return to School Roadmap. Like the state, schools in the archdiocese must implement sanitization protocols, distancing procedures, mask-wearing at all times for staff and students in grades 6-12, and facial coverings required in common areas for younger students, although they are welcome to wear them in class if they so choose.

The Catholic schools took the archdiocesan guidelines and tailored them to fit their school’s needs, said Sister Catherine Marie, principal at St. Isaac Jogues Catholic School, 21100 Madison St.

“We are back full time, full student body,” she said.

St. Isaac Jogues began with a week of half-days and has been conducting many baseline assessments to see where students are, academically, following the shutdown of school buildings in March.

Sister Catherine Marie said online learning worked, but she feels there is an element of community that can’t be communicated through a screen. She said the school is following guidelines from the state, the archdiocese and the CDC to take precautions for students “while also allowing us to attend to the social (and) emotional well-being of our students, which has to happen in person.”

What is unique about a Catholic education, she said, “is we are always committed to educating the whole person. We are both mind and body and soul.”

The physical size of the classrooms at St. Isaac Jogues is very large, she said, which allows students to be more spread apart. That is why the school has come back to 100% in-person learning without any virtual option, following the archdiocese guidance on facial coverings for each grade level.

As stated in its policies and procedures for the 2020-21 school year, St. Joan of Arc School, 22415 Overlake St., is following the archdiocese guidelines as to what facial coverings are required for which grade level; they are strongly encouraged to be worn in the classroom by students in kindergarten through fifth grade and required for students in grades 6-8.

St. Germaine Catholic School decided to require masks at all times for all students and staff, except during meals, while allowing for outdoor mask breaks. DeGrez said they are doing anything they can outdoors and are teaching students to maintain physical distance.

“We call it physically distant, not socially distant. We’re here because we want to be social,” she said.

St. Germaine is offering students the ability to livestream their class and participate in class instruction from their own home, however.

“We offered that as an alternative for those who weren’t comfortable returning in person,” DeGrez said.

While a handful of students have taken advantage of the livestream option, setting up the technology throughout the building also means the school has a plan in place for if the state reverts back to Phase 3 of opening and schools have to close again.

That will allow teachers to continue to come into the building to teach their lessons on a daily basis, even if all students are at home, DeGrez said.

Students at St. Germaine are remaining in their classroom cohort as much as possible, with specials teachers coming to each classroom to teach and students who typically would rotate classrooms for each subject instead staying in their homeroom while the teachers rotate classrooms. Classes go outside for recess a couple grades at a time, playing in their class cohorts, and then return to their classroom for lunch.

St. Isaac Jogues students in the elementary grades have their specials brought to their classroom, while middle school grades will continue to go to the classroom assigned for the subject. Students will have recess a couple grades at a time and remain in their class cohorts, then have lunch in assigned seats in the cafeteria.

St. Joan of Arc students will stay in their homeroom classes for specials, as well. Classroom groups will be assigned specific recess locations around the campus to avoid contact with other groups as much as possible and will eat lunch in either the lower hall, outside in the picnic table area or in their classroom. Calls and a request for comment from St. Joan of Arc School were not returned by press time.

A day and a half into the school year, DeGrez said it’s going great.

“Everyone’s always excited for the first day of school, but this was so much more,” she said. “It’s just a small sense of normalcy coming back.

“It looks weird and it feels different and it is different, but it’s OK because everybody’s doing it and everyone understands, even our little guys.”

Elementary students need a human connection that is missing through a screen, she said.

St. Germaine had many new students join the school, filling some grade levels, but enrollment at the school is fairly consistent from prior years as some families decided to homeschool as opposed to having their students participate in the livestream and a large 8th grade class graduated. The COVID-19 shutdown meant the school lost its spring recruiting season. The novel coronavirus has also led to fewer parents deciding to send their young children to preschool at 3 years old, although DeGrez said there is a waitlist for first grade.

“I love welcoming new families, but I’m not going to overcrowd our classrooms,” she said.

Sister Catherine Marie said something similar is occurring at St. Isaac Jogues, where enrollment is up slightly from families looking for in-person instruction while some former families are doing homeschool and others want to try a virtual option offered through another school since St. Isaac Jogues is not offering any virtual option.

Planning for the school year was a lot of work, DeGrez said, as well as mentally and emotionally draining for teachers worrying about their own health while trying to make plans to keep students safe and healthy.

“That took its toll ... and the planning for opening was very difficult, very detail oriented. We had to put a lot of organizational things in place so (students are) only touching their own stuff,” she said. “We find it necessary to teach them to physically distance and teach them to wash their hands and teach them to not touch their face, because they’re kids, they need constant reminders.

“We’re all kind of waiting for this new routine to become routine.”

“It’s definitely a challenging time for education and for educators, but I also know that for me and for my staff, our keyword ... has been gratitude,” Sister Catherine Marie said. “To be able to be together again as a community, to be able to instruct our students and be with our students, and for our families to be able to come together has been such an incredible gift to us that all of the extra work that we’re having to do is worth it.”