December 10, 2020
Dear Stark County Catholic School Families,
We would like to address questions about the decision that our Stark County Catholic Schools (SCCS) made to transition to remote learning when Stark County was given a Level 4, or Purple, rating on the State of Ohio’s Public Health Advisory System. There has been a lot of feedback, in favor of our decision and in question of our decision. We hear you, we are listening, and we continue to examine remote learning from all angles.
We understand that remote learning creates a burden for our families, no matter their circumstances. However, we remain resolved that the best decision was to strongly advise that our schools transition to remote learning. Our top priority is always the health and safety of our students, staff, and the larger community.
Decisions are made after much discussion amongst our school principals and system-wide administrators, extensive research, and after consultation with our local health departments and the Ohio Department of Health. There were a number of factors that influenced our decision.
Student and Staff Safety is our Top Priority
We are fortunate we’ve gotten this far in the school year. Our Catholic schools have done an excellent job implementing safety protocols. Students have been conscientiously wearing masks and social distancing. Our small class sizes helped mitigate spread. This summer, we were confident that our schools would have an advantage in community efforts to prevent the spread of the virus and they have.
The number of positive cases in our schools is increasing. Unfortunately, even with the advantage of small classes and careful implementation of safety protocols, our schools have still had cases of COVID-19.
Forecasts indicate cases will increase at an alarming rate in the coming weeks. Many of our families adjusted their holiday plans and stayed home for Thanksgiving, with the intention of doing the same for Christmas and some families did not. The actions outside of school impact what happens inside of our schools. That reality gave us great concern about potential spread.
Currently, one in every 25 Ohioans is testing positive for COVID-19. We are seeing an alarming number of COVID-19 cases in Ohio each day. Further, as of last week when we decided to go remote, Stark County currently has the highest positivity rate of infection of all of the counties at 25-30 percent. The rest of Ohio is 16 percent.
Most experts agree that if staying home is an option, it is the safest choice. We have not been mandated, at this time, to go remote. Schools want to stay open and local health departments are offering guidelines for schools to attempt to do so, safely. They do say that staying at home is the safest choice. We believe we need to act proactively. In good conscience, we were unwilling to wait to act until our number of cases became unmanageable. Our decision was intended to prevent spread in our schools.
Care for our Larger Community Must Guide Us
Facing the challenges of COVID-19 has been a real-world lesson of faith in action. Putting God at the center of all that we do is one way we distinguish ourselves from other educational options. Each day, we attempt to instill care for others. The sacrifices and disappointment we face is demonstrating care for others.
We want to protect not just students, but our staff. As cases continue to rise, it is important to recognize that our staff is exposed when we are in-person. Our teachers, administrators, and staff do amazing work and give their hearts to our students. Staying at home keeps them safe.
Our faith compels us to do our part. Recently, we connected with local hospital leaders. Aultman Hospital and Mercy Medical Center currently have 100 patients in their hospitals being treated for COVID-19 and they are at 80 percent capacity. Their forecasts have been accurate as the pandemic has unfolded, and they project that they will have 300-500 patients each by the end of December. They need our help to slow the spread.
Number of Cases: Staff vs. Student Cases
Like other districts, we were asked to post our case count where families can find it. We have a system-wide dashboard on our website, StarkCountyCatholicSchools.org, that lists our numbers. That page is linked on each of our individual school COVID-19 pages. Every principal, on a regular basis, asks their families to review safety protocols and check for updates. Our dashboard is updated weekly.
Our dashboard attempts to protect privacy. The dashboard does not list the number of people in quarantine, a staff versus student count, or individual building count. This is not required by the state. We do not list that information because we take privacy seriously. Releasing a break-down of groups in schools as small as ours makes it very easy for people to guess who has the virus.
We have an ever-growing list of positive cases in our schools amongst staff and students. We are also seeing an extremely high number of students and staff members who are absent because they are in quarantine. Recently, some of our schools have had 50+ students in quarantine at one time.
Remote Learning Allows us to Maintain Academic Excellence
Our schools are experiencing staff shortages due to COVID-19. Our schools have multiple staff members who have tested positive, are awaiting test results, or in quarantine due to contact tracing. Schools have experienced last-minute cancellations or gone remote temporarily as a result and a lack of substitutes. This year we have a shortage of substitutes, as many are uncomfortable due to COVID-19. Substitutes are required to have a 4-year degree, a license from the state, a current BCI/FBI, and Virtus Training. Our schools work together to find substitutes. SCCS has a sub list. We still do not have enough substitutes.
Students deserve the best education. Students learn best with their own teachers. If teachers are safe at home, they can continue to work with their students. We want to keep our staff out of harm's way and we want our students to be taught by their own teachers.
Education is an Essential Service
Our staff has been preparing for a pivot to remote learning since the start of the school year. We are confident that our teachers will provide their students with continued personalized learning and meaningful instruction. Our teachers have had continuing professional development to find creative and effective ways to reach students online.
A Catholic education helps students develop in mind, body, and spirit. Given the approach we take to remote learning, we believe our staff will still find ways to connect with our students daily and find ways to feed their spirit. Since COVID-19 began, our schools have found more ways to share our faith and build community such as praying together online, streaming Masses, online religion classes, digital prayer services, sharing prayer intentions on Google documents, class meetings to just check-in, and many other ways.
Mental Health Considerations
Each of our schools will do their best to keep students engaged. We hope that going remote in the short-term will allow us to return to school in-person for the long-term. We recognize that learning from home is not the same but we will find ways to stay connected to our students. Classes will have regular communication with their teachers and classmates. Teachers have been asked to hold regular virtual meetings, they will see their students and know them well enough to gauge how they are doing.
Our schools are concerned with student mental and emotional health. If a student needs extra support mentally, emotionally, physically, or academically, please contact your school principal. We have guidance counselors and/or school psychologists available. Just as they would if we were in-person, school principals will be able to get your family in contact with the best resources to support you and your child(ren). The resolve of our staff has not changed, they are here for their students and want them to thrive.
Each of our schools have faith-based resources. If your family needs spiritual support, please contact your school principal. Our teachers, campus ministers, and pastors care about our students' spiritual well being.
Athletics (practices and games) and in-person student organizations, are suspended. Akron Children’s Hospital recently released a statement confirming that children do get COVID-19. The rise of cases in Northeast Ohio has been mirrored among children. They emphasized that spread is coming via sports, after-school activities, sleep-overs, and gatherings. With safety as our guide, in-person extracurricular activities are currently suspended while we are rated Level 4, Purple, until January 4. If we are reduced to a Level 3, Red, rating before January 4, athletics and other in-person student organizations can resume. We will evaluate offering athletics and student organizations daily.
Athletic facilities are closed at all of our schools during this period. Athletics are suspended for all 12 of our schools, both schools learning remotely and those who are in-person.
A significant number of students who have been quarantined in the last few weeks have been due to athletics. We experienced some need for students to quarantine during fall athletics, but as winter sports began we have seen an increase in the number of teams in quarantine. At the high school level, we have had cancelled and/or rescheduled games due to COVID-19.
Elementary level athletics are approached as a system. It has been decided among our principals and SCCS administrators that the most responsible decision at this time is to suspend athletics as a system.
Contact spreads viruses. We want to proactively protect our student-athletes and be sure they do not come into contact with anyone who is positive for COVID-19. We want to see our teams have a season. If we take strong steps now, we should be able to resume play after the holidays.
We must think of our coaches and student advisors. Just as we are concerned with keeping our school staff safe, we are mindful that our steps also protect our coaches, volunteers, and club advisors. Most of our elementary coaches are parent volunteers, we cannot ask them to assume this risk and we cannot demand that they alter their lives to be sure they don’t come into contact with the virus. At the high school level, most of our coaches and advisors are paid but that doesn’t mean they should assume extra risk. We are grateful that our athletic directors and high school coaches support our decision.
Public School Responses
Our local school districts have had various responses to COVID-19. Some have been remote or offering a hybrid model since the start of this school year. Others have gone remote when necessitated by case numbers or staff shortages. Many districts indicated in their return to school plans that if Stark County was elevated to a Level 4 rating that they would go remote. Some are following that protocol and some are not. Like us, their responses are unique to their district’s needs.
We are independent of public schools and do not have to mirror their responses. Our Catholic schools collaborate with a number of public schools. Given our unique school environments, it is not effective to follow the direction of one or two public school districts. While we consider what our community partners are doing, our decisions are based on what is best for our students, in our buildings.
Response by public school districts has also varied for athletics. While not all public school districts have suspended athletics, some have, and there have certainly been periods that public school teams have been unable to play. Again, our position is to be proactive, and it is more important to us that we keep students safe.
Many public school districts have contingency plans in their protocols for large staffing shortages. There are public schools that have large numbers of students and staff who are absent due to COVID-19. Many of our public schools face staffing shortages. Like us, our public schools are likely to face an increase in infection. We don’t want to execute a contingency plan. We decided to be proactive, to prevent our staff from being sick rather than reacting to them being sick.
Some Catholic Schools Are Remote and Others Are Not
|Transitioned to Remote Learning
Continuing In-Person Learning
Central Catholic, Canton
|Our Lady of Peace, Canton
|St. Thomas Aquinas, Louisville
|SS. Philip & James, Canal Fulton
|Regina Coeli, Alliance
|St. Barbara, Massillon
|St. Joan of Arc, Canton
|St. James, Waynesburg
|St. Michael the Archangel, Canton
|St. Mary, Massillon
|St. Paul, North Canto
|St. Peter, Canton
SCCS recommended that all of our schools go remote and do so as a system. Both of our high schools have transitioned to remote learning. The dynamic of our elementary schools is different from that of the high schools. At the elementary level, there are multiple levels to the chain of command, principals receive direction from the president of SCCS, the Diocese of Youngstown Office of Catholic Schools, and the parish pastor.
While we pride ourselves on small class sizes, some of our schools are larger than others. Some of the schools who plan to continue in-person learning have very small class sizes, especially when compared to our larger elementary schools.
There are unique concerns for the different communities found at each of our schools. Some of the schools who are continuing to learn in-person have not had any cases of COVID-19 at this time and have not experienced staff shortages. A few of our elementary schools were concerned that their families would not transition as easily to remote learning for a variety of reasons.
The beauty of SCCS is that we can share resources and best practices but we are also a system of 12 unique schools. Each school has their own unique identities and needs. SCCS supports the unique needs of each school. Our recommendation was intended to empower each school to move to remote learning if that path was open for them and best served them.
When Will In-Person Learning Resume?
At this time, our plan is to return to in-person learning on Monday, January 4. We evaluate and gather information daily to decide when we should return to in-person learning. Our team of SCCS administrators are in constant communication and sharing the latest news on COVID-19. We will be in communication evaluating the situation over Christmas break. These are not ordinary times and, as a result, our school administrators are working harder than ever before to make sure we keep our community safe. We will notify families of any changes with as much notice as we can and will continue to share our plans for moving forward.
We understand that sending your children to our schools is a choice. That is something we take very seriously. Our staff and teachers are continually focused on offering families the best experience possible. That resolve remains no matter how our students learn. You can continue to count on academic excellence, personalized attention, outstanding student engagement, a family atmosphere, and faith development even during remote learning. We are aware of the possible negative impact our transition to remote learning could have on us, but we put the safety and health of our students and staff above everything else. Right now, for the six schools learning remotely, putting students first means taking all steps possible to keep them safe from COVID-19 given their concerns about trends in their school. We will continue to evaluate the situation daily.
Please remember that what we do outside of school impacts what happens in our school. All of us can help stop the spread so we can return to in-person learning.
As a community rooted in faith, we hope that you will trust that our intentions are good and were well reasoned. We ask you to join us in prayer for all those impacted by COVID-19, including our own students and staff.
Stark County Catholic Schools