BRUNSWICK — St. John’s Catholic School in Brunswick will reopen for in-person learning in the fall, school officials announced Monday. 

St. John’s school switched to remote learning in mid-March with the rest of Maine schools.

Bishop Robert Deeley speaks with students at St. John’s Catholic School in Brunswick. Courtesy of Catholic Diocese

“Barring unforeseen developments,” St. John’s will reopen with a full day, five days per week schedule, Marianne Pelletier, superintendent of Maine Catholic Schools said in a statement.

The Brunswick school joins other Catholic schools in Portland, Auburn, Biddeford, Augusta, Bangor and Sanford that will have similar schedules.

“We are confident that our schools’ health protocols and processes will keep our school environments as healthy and as safe as possible for all members of our communities,” Pelletier said.

According to St. John’s Principal Shelly Wheeler, most parents want their kids back in school next year, but she said she is “confident in our ability to do either (method) and meet families where they are.”  

For some St. John’s students, the pandemic did not just take them out of classes, but out of the school altogether.

According to Wheeler, the projected enrollment for next year is down roughly 25% —  about 75 students compared to last year’s 100 in school for students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. 

Many families have been forced to cut costs as a result of the financial impact of the virus, and for some that means rethinking a private Catholic school education, Wheeler said. 

The school also draws a number of students from families who previously home-schooled their children but chose to send them to Catholic school later on because it aligns with their values. When classes moved online in March and students began learning at home anyway, some of those families chose to continue as they had before, giving them more flexibility around scheduling and curriculum, she said. 

The drop in enrollment will impact the school financially, and Wheeler said Tuesday that a few recently vacated teacher positions will not be refilled. 

“Financially, we do what we have to do,” she said. 

The Maine Department of Education is still developing guidance on reopening for the public schools, but the decision on reopening will ultimately be up to each district.

The school’s small size made the decision to reopen an easier one, as ensuring proper social distancing and adequate sanitization for 75 students will be more manageable than for the several hundred in Brunswick’s public schools.

When St. John’s and other Maine Catholic Schools reopen, they will follow the recommended U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines and classrooms will be capped at 15 students to allow desks to be spaced at least six feet apart (the recommended distance to help prevent the spread of coronavirus), Wheeler said. 

If need be, St. John’s has some unused classrooms that can be opened. 

“Safety is the first priority,” Wheeler said, and officials are working on ways to help ensure the kids can have as normal a return to school as possible. 

What that may entail is still up in the air, but Wheeler said they are hoping students can be spaced far enough apart that they do not have to wear masks while in the classroom, just when in the common areas, and are trying to configure space in the next door community center to allow students to still eat lunch together and not just in the classroom.

Staff will be required to follow stricter sanitation practices and instruct students on proper handwashing techniques, among other measures. 

“I’m going to do anything I can to make sure it doesn’t feel like some sort of… institution,” Wheeler said. “I want them to feel at home, feel like they’re in school, and keep the atmosphere and spirit (up) so they enjoy coming to school.” 

For families who are not comfortable sending their children back to school in the fall, The Diocese of Portland is helping the schools to develop a virtual distance-learning option.

 “We recognize that parents are the first teachers of their children, and we fully understand that they are making a cognizant choice to offer their child a Catholic education,” Pelletier said. “Though there are many alternatives to Catholic education, there are no substitutes.”

While Wheeler said the response to online learning in the spring was “overwhelmingly positive,” there have been some aspects of education, like social-emotional learning (skills needed to manage emotions, build and maintain positive relationships, etc.) that have been hard to implement outside of the classroom.

“We are thrilled that we are planning to reopen our doors,” and get that social-emotional piece back, she said, adding that she and the other staff are looking forward to seeing the kids again when the doors open Aug. 26, even if it is from six feet away.

“Not seeing the kids daily was really sad for our teachers and for the kids,” she said. “We feel like a family.” 

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