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September 2, 2020

By Darcy Fargo

OGDENSBURG – After a challenging end to the 2019-20 school year, Catholic schools in the Diocese of Ogdensburg are embracing the opportunities for growth presented by the ongoing pandemic as they prepare to begin a new school year.

“There are challenges going forward, and we’re not returning to a normal situation,” said Sister Ellen Rose Coughlin, SSJ, diocesan superintendent of schools. “We can’t use that as an excuse just to drift. We need to continue looking forward. We will need to embrace new methods, new tools and new approaches than we have used in the past. Moreover, we need to stay the course with commitment to our Catholic mission and worldview, our strong academic programs and attention to social and emotion learning.”

Sister Ellen Rose noted that the unprecedented school closure in March pushed the diocesan Catholic schools to a remote learning system, a move that required some adaptation and involved a learning curve.

“It was an opportunity to discover new approaches,” she said. “Prior to the school closure in March, our schools did not regularly use technology to deliver instruction. After the closure, we were pushed to determine the best tools for instruction and those which would keep us in touch with our students and their parents. The adaptation has been, for the most part, positive. While I do not think a virtual model should ever replace person-to-person education and the interaction that takes place in a classroom, we recognized that we can use technology more effectively as an instructional tool.”

While prepared to offer services remotely, all eight Catholic schools in the diocese are offering full-time, in-person instruction when school resumes in the fall.

“Five-day instruction is the preference of the majority of parents who have children in kindergarten through grade eight,” Sister Ellen Rose said. “For that reason, we have seen an uptick in enrollment at some schools, especially where the public school is not able to provide it. Some schools have waiting lists for some grade levels. We also have students who have health concerns or live with family members with health concerns who have opted for virtual learning. When factors require virtual learning, schools are able to provide it.”

Sister Ellen Rose noted that extensive planning and discussions went into creating the plans for the 2020-21 school year.

“Each school successfully created two plans,” she said. “They had to complete one plan to meet the mandates for the New York State Department of Health. Those plans were due July 31. In addition, they needed to submit a plan on August 7 that incorporated the New York State Office of Religious and Independent School guidelines. This plan included the Department of Health guidance but also state mandates regarding attendance, instruction, accountability, operational and facility procedures, lunch and breakfast programs, social and emotion learning, etc.”

Sister Ellen Rose noted that school plans, as required by New York State, address the social and emotional needs of students.

“We were very fortunate that social-emotional learning has been a focus area for us for the past three years,” she said. “Our administrators and teachers have participated in extensive professional development in this area, resulting in every school developing a plan that implements the goals and best practices of social emotional learning aligned with our Catholic values.”

The superintendent said that beginning in 2019-20, the Catholic schools were fortunate to have Family Support Coordinators.

“We have a family support coordinator in every school now,” Sister Ellen Rose said. “Our family support coordinators were a valuable resource prior to the school closure. They were invaluable from March onward. Whether it was initiating and sustaining communication with families, providing the basic necessities of life, delivering education resources or supporting parents in meeting the challenges of the lockdown, the coordinators were a blessing for our schools and their families.”

Sister Ellen Rose also credited the principals, faculties and staffs of the schools for their adaptability and commitment to Catholic education.

“I commend our principals,” she said. “We met with them every week from March 20 to June 24. We thought we might be able to eliminate meetings in July, but we couldn’t. We met at least twice in July and went back to weekly meetings in August. Their creativity, thoughtful questions and proposed solutions contributed to procedures and policies for a successful conclusion of the 2019-20 school year and reopening plans for the 2020-21 year. Our principals, teachers and staffs were and continue to be dedicated to the families and students that comprise their school community and committed to our mission to educate the whole child.”

She also noted the schools received outstanding support from outside entities, as well.

“It was the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation grants that allowed us to create the Family Support Coordinator positions,” she said. “Moreover, an additional grant provides scholarships to students who meet the eligibility requirements. In June, we awarded 158 scholarships for 105 families. We expect another 70 to 90 students to apply during the second application cycle.”

The diocesan schools also received support from other diocesan offices.

“We also had great support from diocesan offices, including but not limited to the information technology, the fiscal office and human resources office,” Sister Ellen Rose said.

The superintendent said she looks to the new school year with gratitude, confidence, hope and prayer.

“I am grateful for the support we have received. I am confident that the schools’ plans provide for the safe and healthy return of their students. I also know there will be challenges and hurdles to overcome. I thank God for His ever-present guidance and grace during this challenging time. In this Year of St. Joseph, we have commended our schools to St. Joseph, the protector and guardian of families. We rely upon his intercession and often ask for him ask for his assistance.”

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