"Innovation at its Finest": How two Catholic schools embraced uncertainty, rebuilt operational vitality

Against tenuous odds, Catholic schools throughout the Diocese of Sacramento commemorated “back to school” and the academic calendar like never before as the 2020-2021 school year arrived last August.

Denise Remick, principal of Holy Trinity School in El Dorado Hills, refers to managing a range of new “protocols to ensure the safest possible environment.” Edee Wood, principal of Mount St. Mary Academy in Grass Valley, cites “the tricky climate” that beset schools everywhere, grappling to comply with guidelines for educating young students amid the persistent COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the then-daunting task of reopening schools, in hindsight both principals feel immense gratitude for how their respective Catholic school communities went back to school last fall to provide onsite, in-person instruction. An estimated 90 percent of Catholic schools nationwide also returned and a recent National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) survey of diocesan and Catholic school leaders reveals schools “are operating with at least part-time in-person instruction, with no major outbreaks or transmission of COVID-19 being reported.”

Edee and Denise know their experiences have been positive. They see happy families, engaged students, dedicated teachers, caring staff members and revitalized operations.

Mount St. Mary Academy, Grass Valley

“We brought students back to campus the first week of August,” explains Edee, who has served as principal for 13 years. Even after distance learning options of the spring months, the seasoned principal of 13 years sensed “a lot of nervousness about returning to campus.”

“We wanted a smooth transition,” she says, sharing how the first two weeks of August were devoted to gauging students’ academic preparedness. The time also allowed a “trial run” for staff to put new protocols in place, such as morning drop-off.

Edee details how students exit cars and make their way to teachers for temperature and symptom checks before entering the building and using hand sanitizer before heading straight to class. New routines focus on sanitizing, social distancing and face masks. Every safety measure came with added instructions of when and where the new habits were necessary.

By the time Aug. 17 arrived, Mount St. Mary welcomed 178 students enrolled in transitional kindergarten through eighth grade, a 42 percent increase from the previous year.

Edee Wood, principal, works with a student at Mount St. Mary's Academy in Grass Valley.

“Even though our (Nevada) county allowed schools to open, we were the only school to open five full days a week,” Edee clarifies, attributing the enrollment jump to this fact. Other district schools either did not open, or opened as a hybrid or part-time model. Mount St. Mary saw an influx of students, many of whom were non-Catholic, desiring a return to the classroom and welcoming the school’s offerings, including the faith component.

“Many expressed how they had wished they had known about us before,” Edee affirms, amazed at what open doors and welcoming hearts bring. The wait list grows with regular phone calls from parents seeking a spot.

Feedback has been encouraging with a persistent humming in the community about the good things going on at Mount St. Mary: success with distance learning last spring, a summer math program, and the return to a safe and healthy classroom. Edee says they revisit protocols weekly, adjusting as needed. Teachers own changes along the way and parents monitor their children’s health vigilantly, keeping them home if necessary.

“We have to be very intentional,” she insists. A new kind of momentum is building as they support and promote the reinvented vitality of Mount St. Mary Academy. She hopes advertisements, publicity and old-fashioned word of mouth will reinforce the school’s good work.

“The Sisters of Mercy came to Nevada City with a vision to serve the community in 1859,” Edee says, believing that 161 years later “their mission lives on.” She relates how the sisters served the community with a safe and supportive environment and these same values are perpetuated today. “We are safe, supportive, developing character, and focusing on academics,” she confirms, quite sure that the school serves the community explicitly and in ways untold.

Holy Trinity School Ministry, El Dorado Hills

Holy Trinity School also embarked on a gradual reintroduction of onsite learning last August, offering students and parents a crucial comfort level with “meet and greet” family meetings. She appreciated the chance to welcome families as the new principal, after previously serving for 18 years at the now-closed Holy Family School in Citrus Heights as teacher, vice principal and principal.

“We met with each family, allowing parents to see the classrooms and set-up students’ desks while meeting their teacher,” she explains, stressing how the onsite experience was important since parents would not be allowed on campus thereafter. “Parents responded phenomenally and the kids were little champions.” She was delighted at how everyone accepted protocols, seamlessly adapting to the new normal.

Not all families chose to return children to the classroom and the school further opted to “consciously cap” enrollment at 185 students – about half of its capacity. They welcomed some students who were new to Catholic school and eager to participate in onsite, daily instruction.

“We also offered remote learning, and some students ‘Zoomed’ into the classroom ‘live’ with their teacher and fellow students, engaging fully in the class,” Denise marvels. She admires the diligent work of teachers who sorted through technology platforms to construct parallel environments beneficial for all learners.

Denise Remick visits with students in class at Holy Trinity School in El Dorado Hills.

“It’s a high-pressure time, but not one of our teachers was reluctant,” Denise adds, citing a joyful readiness to such a “big ask.”

Denise indicates more than half of the initial remote learners have returned to the classroom. “Many families felt comfortable with what they were seeing on the classroom camera,” she notes, sharing how it offered evidence of how seriously teachers and students take the safety protocols.

Back on campus means students enjoy friendships and thrive with their social and emotional connections. Academic learning and spiritual, service-minded formation thrives. Denise stresses the importance of friends, teachers and community and their commitment to “a full educational experience.”

Denise witnesses “innovation at its finest,” reveling at how students and staff keep faith and community alive. She refers to several creative school-wide activities: a ministry awareness project which culminated in a “We Run to Serve” event which raised funds for various ministries; video messages and songs uploaded to the school’s YouTube channel; and several donation collections to help those in need.

“We won’t stop doing this,” Denise avows, noting service as the hallmark of “spirituality in action.”

“Even when we find ourselves challenged by the situation – with COVID – we are so blessed by abundance and we must find ways to serve others,” she offers as the antidote to uncertainty and the energy fueling renewed vitality.

Catholic Herald Issue