Catholic Schools Open In The Chicago Area Amid Teacher Concerns About COVID-19

The 70,000 students in Catholic schools will be the largest experiment with in-person learning in the area.

Queen of the Rosary
A teacher at Queen of the Rosary elementary school in Elk Grove Village welcomes students for the first day of class on Aug. 17, 2020. Adriana Cardona Maguigad / WBEZ
Queen of the Rosary
A teacher at Queen of the Rosary elementary school in Elk Grove Village welcomes students for the first day of class on Aug. 17, 2020. Adriana Cardona Maguigad / WBEZ

Catholic Schools Open In The Chicago Area Amid Teacher Concerns About COVID-19

The 70,000 students in Catholic schools will be the largest experiment with in-person learning in the area.

Principal Kathleen McGinn of Queen of the Rosary elementary spent Monday morning making sure that her Catholic school was clean and ready to go.

She directed teachers, staff and parent volunteers who greeted students with temperature checks and hand sanitizer.

“I am nervous, very,” McGinn said. “I was nervous before I saw all of this coming today.”

The school in suburban Elk Grove Village was one of many Catholic schools opening Monday for the first time since schools in Illinois shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. All of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s schools, serving some 70,000 students, will be opening over the next three weeks.

Also, many suburban public schools are starting this week, though several back-peddled on reopening plans and have since decided to start at least the first few weeks of school remotely.

This leaves the Catholic school system the area’s biggest experiment with in-person learning. Many teachers are grappling with the fear of catching the coronavirus.

But many working parents are thrilled to send their children back. Some even transferred their children to Catholic schools because they wanted in-person learning.

“We think it’s better for the kids to be present in the school,” said Gabriel Moreno as he waited in his car to drop off his two children at Queen of the Rosary. “Not everyone is good at learning remotely.”

Archdiocese of Chicago school officials have assured parents and teachers that they will follow strict health and safety protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials. This involves social distancing, masks at all times, hand sanitizers and coordinated strategies for students to enter and exit school buildings.

Students at Queen of the Rosary elementary and other schools are expected to stay in the classroom all day while the teachers move to different classrooms or areas.

“I am thrilled to be welcoming students back into our catholic schools,” said Jim Rigg, Superintendent of the Catholic Schools. “It’s so gratifying being able to see these people walk up into the school building this morning. They seem so excited, their parents are excited, the teachers are excited.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago has a lot of incentive to open up their schools. For years, many Catholic schools have closed due to enrollment declines. The COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating the financial challenges. Many families who are paying full tuition rates are expecting in-person learning, this includes new parents who see Catholic schools as an option as opposed to public schools that are starting with remote learning only.

But it is also facing criticism from teachers.

“The teachers are very afraid of catching COVID, getting COVID and bringing home, they are terrified,” said Elaine Sage, a reading and writing part-time teacher at St. Francis Xavier School in Wilmette.

Over the summer, Catholic schools officials said they surveyed parents and teachers before deciding to have in-person learning. They also conducted listening sessions with parents and students throughout the summer.

Sage said she was never asked to fill out a survey. She and 32 other teachers at St. Francis Xavier sent a letter in recent weeks to Archdiocese school officials asking for more details about their in-person reopening strategy.

Their questions range from where are safe teacher lunchroom areas to whether class sizes could be reduced. Sage and other teachers argue some classrooms are too small for students to keep the six feet distance recommended by experts.

“The archdiocese is misleading parents and teachers,” said Marie, a teacher at a suburban school who asked not to use her last name out of fear of losing her job. “They are playing with our lives and they are pretending that all these guidelines are in place.”

Marie said many teachers have chronic illnesses or have family members with underlying health conditions and should not be forced to work in small spaces where children can not be six feet apart.

Archdiocese officials have defended their strategy, saying their plan specifies that children should be at least three feet apart when in their class and more than six feet away when outside of their class or when masks are removed.

Rigg said he will try to accomodate teachers who have legitimate medical issues or anxiety. But he added: “We still need teachers to teach in our classroom.”

During the summer, Rigg also promised teachers and parents that schools will be cleaned, but teachers like Sage worry not all Catholic schools have the same resources.

“About the poor areas in the city, what’s going to happen to them, without the personal, protective equipment they need and the resources,” Sage said.

Several Catholic schools applied individually for the federal Paycheck Protection Plan loans designed to help small businesses deal with the financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Each applied for a different amount based on the requirements, according to the archdioceses.

Teachers are not the only ones concerned, their family members are too.

“It’s very nerve racking,” said Lauren, whose mom is a teacher at a suburban Catholic school.

Lauren, who recently lost her aunt to COVID-19, asked not to use her family last name.

“It’s disturbing to hear about the way the information is being presented to families about what the conditions are going to be like and then to hear first hand what they are actually like. It feels like two different stories,” she said

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.