Sacred Heart, St. Paul’s able to maintain in-person classes

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Sacred Heart School is one of the Cullman area’s private schools. (Nick Griffin for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – School schedules have been a bit topsy-turvy this year due to COVID-19, but Sacred Heart School and St. Paul’s Lutheran School have been able to maintain in-person learning despite the challenges. Both schools are scheduled to begin the second semester of the 2020-2021 school year during the first full week of January. Smaller class sizes help tremendously, but both schools still had to make many adjustments.

Sacred Heart has classes for students from 3 years old through sixth grade and Principal Shawna Norman explained that the smaller number of students allows for one classroom per grade level. Temperatures are also checked for each student before they enter the building each day.

“That’s to prevent anything from coming into our building,” said Norman. “Not just COVID, but flu or strep or whatever would cause a fever. We are trying to keep everything out.”

Students wear their masks every day and almost everywhere, Norman said. “The only time they don’t wear their masks is at break. They don’t wear them at P.E. and, of course, when they are eating lunch.”

At St. Paul’s, the situation is very similar with the same age range of students and smaller class sizes.

Emily Trahan, director of creative services at St. Paul’s, said, “There has been a virtual plan in place the whole time just in case there is another shutdown.” But the school has remained open, and Trahan says that is a blessing. “Being able to stay open for in-person learning, we have been blessed with having the space.”

Trahan added, “There’s never a time when two classes are in the hallway at the same time. All bathroom breaks for the classrooms are scheduled to where they are the only class in the hall. They have their masks on and once they are done, they go back to their classroom.”

Lunches are in the classroom rather than the lunchroom this year to maintain class separation, she said, and the only time the students are not in the classroom at St. Paul’s is for P.E. and chapel.

“Even going to chapel, that’s done in shifts where everybody is not in the hall at the same time and they wear their masks to chapel,” said Trahan. “When they are seated, they can take their masks off. Due to the size of our sanctuary- it can hold over 700 people, so the classes are very easily spread out- they are not right next to each other.”

Sacred Heart had to make a tough decision in an effort to keep the students safe by eliminating its basketball program for this school year.

“We usually participate in the pee-wee basketball program, but we cut that out,” Norman said.

Other programs, such as the school’s Christmas program, were done virtually.

COVID-19 has also had an effect on fundraising, with St. Paul’s annual New Year’s fundraiser canceled this year. Trahan said she is hopeful that by spring the auction will be achievable.

St. Paul’s has turned to technology to virtually allow the pastor to conduct morning assembly. Trahan explained that they had to find a way to keep things as normal as possible while utilizing existing technology.

“You’ve got to have some normalcy throughout all this madness, especially for the kids,” said Trahan. “Rather than doing away with morning assembly, which was not an option, they have basically made it where it is a huge conference call. They can see pastor coming in on a screen in each classroom, and each classroom is connected. Pastor calls into each classroom to talk about any celebration that the classroom has or any news. It keeps that much needed connectivity between the kids, the administrators and pastors.”

Parents and visitors are not allowed inside the schools this year. They are met at the door if they need to check their child out or in.

Norman gives much of the credit to the teachers and support staff for keeping Sacred Heart going, saying, “I think it’s been diligent with my teachers keeping the rooms clean. The kids Germ-X in and out of every room they go in. We can’t social distance 6 feet apart; it’s impossible with our school, so I think in that aspect we have been lucky.”

Trahan also praised teachers and support staff.

She smiled, “Our support staff goes above and beyond. They disinfect the school every day. I joke that they look like Ghostbusters. It looks like an old canister vacuum kind of thing over their shoulder with a nozzle and once the kids are gone, they are in every room every day. All common areas, everything is disinfected multiple times a day to keep it clean for the kids so they can enjoy the most normal education experience that you can get during this time of COVID. Having smaller class sizes is definitely a help, but also having the support of the support staff and the teachers that go the extra mile to keep their classrooms clean. It’s a group effort. It’s not one person. It’s a perfect combination of smaller sizes and continuous disinfecting.”

Norman said Sacred Heart has had four COVID cases but was able to keep those cases isolated.

“I think it’s diligence,” she said. “A big part is our parents and our parents keeping kids home when they think they might be sick and being diligent about if they have been in contact with somebody and not sending them back to school.”

Keeping the kids in the classroom is a top priority for both schools.

“I feel it’s so very important for students to be face-to-face,” Norman said. “We saw the terrible backwards slide last spring when we had to close schools down. I think it is good for everybody. For our students, especially at our young age, they need that face-to-face interaction and the teacher’s want that face-to-face interaction. They can teach better. A 5-year-old sitting in front of a computer all day is just not good for the child, either. To try to learn that way is just really hard.”

Trahan said of the kids at St. Paul’s, “The kids don’t get enough credit for taking care of their masks. Those kids do a great job with their masks. I am super proud of them all.”

Norman is cautiously optimistic coming back from the Christmas break, saying, “We are going to keep trudging along, and I’m not going to tell you that when we get back from Christmas that something’s not going to happen. We have been very fortunate so far to keep our kids in school and that is a good thing.”

Sacred Heart students will return to the classroom Jan. 4, while St. Paul’s students go back Jan 5.

To read about how another private school in Cullman, St. Bernard Prep, finished the first semester, visit www.cullmantribune.com/2020/12/23/blessing-st-bernard-finishes-first-semester-in-session.

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Christy Perry

christy@cullmantribune.com