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Returning to learning

St. Thomas School prepares to welcome students back to the classroom

— Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Anne Blankenship St. Thomas Aquinas School Principal Theresa Schleisman, left, looks over a schedule with Sharon Smith, school secretary. The school is getting ready to welcome students back to the classroom on Aug. 24. Several safety precautions have been put in place, including a plexiglass panel in the school office and in the lunchroom.

Everyone was caught off guard in March when the order to close schools announced. Initially, local school officials thought it would likely be just a couple of weeks off after spring break. But instead, students across the nation were told they would have to finish the year with remote learning opportunities to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Theresa Schleisman, principal of St. Thomas Aquinas School in Webster City, said her staff jumped into action to put together plans for successfully finishing the academic year.

“We just began communicating mainly through Zoom with teachers,” said St. Thomas Aquinas School Principal Theresa Schleisman. The staff chose a couple of different avenues to stay engaged with students. The upper grades worked mainly with Google Classroom.

“It wasn’t mandatory that students take part, but the majority of them did. They wanted to stay engaged,” she said.

For the younger students, teachers prepared packets of lessons and activities. The students and their parents would then collect the packets from teachers in drive-up events at the school. Teachers also did Zoom sessions once a week so the students could see each other, Schleisman said.

“Overall, I think we did the best we could with what we had at the time and on short notice,” she said.

A few things had to be rescheduled like the kindergarten graduation and sixth-grade graduation. Those events will be held sometime this fall, she said.

Over the summer, the school has been preparing for a return to the classroom. Schleisman said she took part in regular webinars with the archdiocese to keep on what was happening in the state and how schools were planning to reopen. She worked on the Return to Learn plan both with the diocese and also on the local level with a committee of staff members.

“We met a few times to before July 1 to finalize the Return to Learn plan, knowing that there would likely be some changes,” Schleisman said. After that, the committee has been working to tweak the plans and get the word out to the rest of the staff.

Last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds released a proclamation that mandated at least half of the instruction will be in-person in the classroom.

With an average class size of 12 students, Schleisman said school officials thought in-person learning, with social distancing, would be manageable.

“Being smaller, we’re hoping that will be an advantage for us,” she said. “We have teachers who are rethinking rooms and moving things around so we can social distance more.”

All of the teachers will be required to wear masks and the school is also looking at clear face shields. The principal said she felt it was important for students to see the teachers’ faces and also that the teachers can see the students’ faces.

Other measures include staggering lunchtimes and recesses, and marking out social distancing spaces in hallways.

She said they are was still working on plans for physical education classes. Currently, the parish is holding Mass in the gymnasium to allow for social distancing.

“For the most part, I think we’ll try to get kids outside as much as possible if we can’t be in the gym,” she said. “People get creative and they brainstorm with all these mitigation pieces.”

The school is also looking at purchasing some Chromebooks in the event that a student becomes ill or must be quarantined. That will allow the student to continue to have access to assignments and their teacher.

A big part of the first few days and weeks of school will be helping the students get into the routine. That means really helping the students with the social-emotional aspects of returning to school, according to Schleisman. There will be gentle reminders of the social distancing and other new rules and procedures.

“We want them to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” she said. “We want them to come to school and have it be as normal as possible. We want them to have fun.”

Having a staff of dedicated instructors is very important, she said.

“The teachers here are so committed to the students and to the school,” she said. “They’re very good at brainstorming, looking for solutions and coming up with what’s best for our students.”

School is set to begin Aug. 24, just one month from now. Schleisman said the teachers are looking forward to seeing the students again.

“We’re going to do whatever we need to do to make sure the children are safe and that they are learning and actually having fun,” she said.

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