St. Leo, Woodford Christian students return to classroom
Students at St. Leo and Woodford Christian schools returned to the classroom last week. The principals at both private schools said everyone in their buildings was excited to see each other when in-person instruction resumed Jan. 4. “It felt right on Monday morning to see kids walk in the building,” said Woodford Christian Principal Cara Meadows. “They were excited. We were excited. Parents were excited.” Prior to suspending in-person instruction after Nov. 20 as mandated by the state, Meadows said Woodford Christian School had been following Healthy at School guidelines and the most significant change has been masking all of the time – not just when moving or when not six feet apart. With that change, even in the colder temperatures, teachers are taking students outside for mask breaks, she added. Overall, with all the necessary safety protocols to resume in-person instruction implemented, Meadows said, “I feel like we’ve done really well.” The Lexington Diocese recommended that Catholic schools could resume in-person instruction as early as Jan. 4, St. Leo School Principal Leo Labrillazo said. He said if he ever felt St. Leo could not reopen safely “then we wouldn’t do it. But we had a really good track record in the first half of the (school) year and we’re doing our best to continue that and we feel like we can keep that going.” Labrillazo knows he can only do so much to keep everyone safe in school, but he also understands the importance of in-person instruction – both academically and socially, he said. “Don’t underestimate the social and mental and emotional impact,” Meadows said. “And that is as important as the academic impact.” She said part of being in school is learning social skills and how to appropriately engage with your peers. “Now that they’re back in school,” Meadows added, based on feedback from parents, “they’re just more carefree, they’re happier. “We are created for community. We are created to be social beings, to be around people. And it’s just really hard when you’re missing that. Schools can provide that.” Labrillazo said the same safe-at-school protocols that were successful when the school year began Aug. 19 were put back into place when students resumed in-person learning Jan. 4. He noted there were no major issues related to COVID or any classroom shutdowns when students were in-person, but that took a lot of hard, vigilant work in school and at home. “A big part of that (success) was our families’ commitment to making sure students were not exposed to the virus … making sure if a child was not feeling well they stayed at home,” Labrillazo said. “But that’s all part of our protocol that we put in place.” Meadows cited Woodford Christian School’s success when it resumed in-person instruction in August into late November as the basis for its decision to return to school Jan. 4 rather than wait until at least Jan. 11, as recommended by the state. With a good Health at School plan already in place, “there wasn’t any reason to wait another week,” she said. Also, as a private school with most families wanting to return to in-person, it was important to respect what they wanted, Meadows said. “And I didn’t have any hesitation of my staff (about returning to in-person) either, because that would’ve played into (the decision),” she explained. Labrillazo did acknowledge there’s been some apprehension among the adults in the building at St. Leo because they know as frontline workers in a pandemic, they’re putting themselves at risk. In addition to wearing masks and socially distancing in the classroom, pickup times for St. Leo students have been staggered and parents may drop off their children during a large window of time to limit their exposure, Labrillazo said. Because students go directly to the classroom, teachers must begin supervising them at 7:15 every morning, he said. Teachers are also with their students throughout the day because every classroom is self-contained, so enrichment instruction like art and music also occurs in their space if they don’t go outside, Labrillazo said. He said students do leave their classroom for lunch in the Parish Hall because there’s sufficient space for social distancing. They also go outside for recess and breaks, he added. Meadows said Woodford Christian School’s enrollment of 62 students includes new families whose children were in public school. The capacity of classes has been reduced from 15 to 12 students to allow for more social distancing, and all but fifth grade has 12 students, she said. Meadows said another change since August that’s benefited Woodford Christian has been keeping every class self-contained so each class has its own recess and physical education times. Because they also eat lunch in their own room, “a student is essentially with their class and their class only for seven-and-a-half hours a day,” she explained. St. Leo’s enrollment has remained about the same (206 students, with three learning virtually), but some families have self-quarantined because of travel or possible exposure during winter break, Labrillazo said. He likened a recent increase in cases within St. Leo households to what’s being experienced in the community as a whole. “The few incidences that we’ve had,” said Labrillazo, “have come from outside” St. Leo. He said non-school activities or other gathering places have been where the virus exposures have occurred. To limit exposure in school, St. Leo does not allow visitors to come into the building unless it’s necessary, Labrillazo said. Anyone making a delivery, for example, is limited to the school’s vestibule area. While Woodford Christian appreciates having parents and grandparents in the building, the school does not allow them to volunteer in classrooms with students in a pandemic year, Meadows said. She said clergy from the community are not coming into the school for chapel, which she’s doing to limit exposure. “We’re trying to do our best to maintain that bubble,” said Meadows. She and Labrillazo lauded the Woodford County Health Department for its ongoing guidance in terms of the safety protocols that have been put in place. “They’ve been great,” said Meadows. She said Woodford Christian School had one positive case of COVID prior to closing to in-person instruction Nov. 20, and that class was moved to virtual learning for two weeks for the health and safety of other students.