Diocesan Schools Begin to Reopen their Doors
After suspending in-person instruction mid-way through the Spring 2020 semester, Episcopal schools across the Diocese of West Texas begin to reopen their doors – both in-person and virtually. Fall semester plans for offering instruction at each of the 26 diocesan Episcopal Schools vary widely, but one thing remains consistent: the decisions have not been easy and every choice requires monumental planning.
In his July letter to church and school leadership, the Rt. Rev. David M. Reed gave diocesan schools permission to make their own decision regarding how and when to reopen, entrusting local leadership to determine the best possible way forward for their school community. The communication emphasized that this critical decision should be made in full partnership between school heads, rectors, boards, vestries, as well as the diocese, and advised that in order to meet diocesan approval, plans must adhere to CDC guidelines, follow state mandates and local health directives, meet educational and safety standards set by the State of Texas and the Southwestern Association of Episcopal Schools (SAES), comply with expanded Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA), and provide a letter signed by all parties indicating that both church and school leadership approve the plan.
In response to the diocesan directives, all 26 schools have submitted plans and received approval from the diocesan Deputy for Episcopal Schools, Mary Katherine Duffy, for reopening in August and September under widely varying blueprints for student instruction and curriculum. Regarding her work with each diocesan school’s leadership, Duffy shares, “Not only did the diocesan staff put together what I think is a really reasonable expectation for reopening, but also our schools are up to the challenge. Every single school has been so diligent and thoughtful as they have made their decision and created reopening plans that make teachers, kids, and parents as safe as possible…They’ve done everything we’ve asked of them, and their plans are very good.”
Beginning the second week of August, most Episcopal preschools and early childhood programs are opening in-person only, while the majority of elementary and middle schools will offer tandem virtual and in-person instruction. A small handful of schools, including TMI Episcopal, will begin their school year with virtual instruction only, with plans to begin tandem virtual and in-person instruction in mid-September.
TMI Episcopal, located on the outer edge of San Antonio, is the flagship school in the diocese, offering on-campus boarding and commuter enrollment for students in grades 6 through 12. The Rev. Scott Brown, Head of School, announced its Fall 2020 decision on July 23rd, in a community update, sharing, “we are best when we are on campus” and expressing concern that returning to fully in-person instruction too soon would result in exposure to the virus within the campus community and an emergency return to remote-only classes.
In a subsequent community update released on August 14th, Brown shares, “We’re still on track to return to campus on September 21st, but as always, we will follow the advice and the recommendation of local health authorities and our own TMI health consultants, and we are continuing to monitor metrics that we are using for our own school and that are used across the country to return to school. We want to make sure that when we come back to campus, we stay on campus. I’m so proud of our faculty and our staff who have climbed Mr. Everest this summer just to get ready for this school year and to do it safely.”
St. Philip’s Episcopal School in Beeville began their fall semester Tuesday, August 18th, providing both in-person and virtual learning options for their Preschool through 6th grade students and families. The Rev. Brian Tarver, Rector of St. Philip’s Church and school parent, shared that planning began in May for a potential return to campus for the fall semester, “It has been a wild ‘Spring Break.’ Making the decision for in-person instruction had many twists and turns. While the protective measures and the changes to the routines are in no way ideal, our fantastic teachers and staff are overjoyed at the ability to regather as a school community.”
He continues by sharing the daily worries prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, “Of course, safety remains the highest priority for our students and staff. I pay careful attention to the statistics in our community, and until the world overcomes the virus, I will worry about the health of our school family. I have had sleepless nights, unable to stop planning and trying to predict what might go wrong, but our School Board, Head of School, and the staff give me confidence by their dedication to the safety and care for St. Philip’s students.”
While school and church leaders experience sleepless nights and navigate uncharted territory this fall, parents share similar pains as they try to discern the next right step for their children, weighing the health and safety of their families against the demands of returning to work. Christopher Duke, Assistant Head of School at St. Luke’s Episcopal School in San Antonio, worked all summer to reimagine the daily class schedule and school operations, as well as train teachers in new digital programs and technology for online students. Duke has two children that began their school year as virtual learners at St. Luke’s on Wednesday, August 18th.
Speaking as both a parent and school administrator, Duke shares, “We know all families had a tough decision to make and had to weigh many different factors when deciding whether to choose on-campus or distance learning. One of the major factors for our family is that my in-laws live with us and one of my family members is high-risk. It is easier for me to protect myself and keep a safe distance from my family member, than to ask my kids to do the same. I am also very confident in our St. Luke’s digital product, and know it will allow my kids an outstanding educational experience from the safety of our home.”
Mary Katherine Duffy admits that no matter how much planning and preparation can take place, “there is no way to ensure that nothing will happen. In any given year, issues arise, especially in one of pandemic.”
Despite what the year may bring, the Rev. Scott Brown concluded his July announcement with a sentiment that rings true throughout the “halls” of all school communities in West Texas, “These challenges we overcome are what will strengthen us as a community…This pandemic will not last forever. And when it is over, we won’t just return to normal, we will have evolved into something much more resilient, and we will be proud to look back upon what we have overcome and what we have accomplished.”
Each diocesan Episcopal School combines community-minded spiritual formation and rigorous academic standards into its daily practices, setting them apart from other educational institutions. For many school families their primary experience of the Church comes through their interactions with their school. By providing options for online learning, remaining committed to transparent communication with families, and adhering to responsible protocols upon returning to in-person learning, each school is upholding its sacred commission to care for the children, families, teachers, and staff that make up their community, demonstrating what it looks like to walk in faith and tackle new challenges head-on with intelligence and compassion.
For more information on Episcopal Schools in the Diocese of West Texas, visit dwtx.org/schools.