FAIRMONT — The only Catholic school in Marion County has been back session for nearly three weeks now and it’s the only local school to offer in-person learning exclusively.
While public schools across the county are providing three alternative learning options, including blended learning, distance learning and West Virginia Virtual School, Fairmont Catholic Grade School is sticking to the traditional form of classroom instruction, with a few tweaks for safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Principal Diane Burnside says things are going fine at the school, which has 133 students in grades pre-kindergarten through eighth.
“So far we’ve done really well. The kids, teachers and parents have all adjusted,” Burnside said. “We’ve got four-year-olds all the way up to ages 12 and 13.”
While Gov. Jim Justice has prohibited several school systems from holding in-person classes because of high positive coronavirus test results in their counties, this week he gave his blessing to private and religious schools to operate how they wish.
“As a state government, we have no control really over these schools,” Justice said. “You know, they do not take funding whatsoever from us and all that kind of stuff. They don’t have busing in a lot of situations and there are so many factors that they have that’s really different than our public school system. From the standpoint of exposure, they have a minimized exposure, and we all recognize that.”
Burnside said several COVID-conscious rules have been put in place to ensure student and teacher safety.
“When parents pull up to the school’s back door to drop off students, we immediately take temperatures before our students even exit their cars. From there, they go directly to their home bases. All students and teachers wear masks and social distance,” said Burnside.
She said the school has also altered its usual daily routine in order to maintain sufficient distance.
“We have three different lunch times, so everybody social distances. And now we have three Masses each day as well. All students have assigned seats at Mass, as well as at lunch,” Burnside said.
Even playground time at Fairmont Catholic has been arranged with safety in mind.
“We have specific areas in which they play with others. This is because if we would have a COVID instance, we’d know with whom they’d been playing in order to better help with contact tracing,” Burnside said. “They have a specific time when they go on the playground. We try to keep them in smaller groups.”
Burnside said students seem to have adapted effortlessly to the tweaks.
“It’s a lot of planning, of course, but the kids don’t realize that. The kids have been amazing. They’re doing really well. In fact, sometimes I find myself playing with my mask more than they are,” she said.
The COVID-19 precautions extend to students’ parents, volunteers and anyone else associated with the school. No parents or volunteers are allowed inside the school building at this time. Parent-teacher meetings are being held on virtual platforms and class events are broadcast on Facebook Live.
“We’re trying to continue as normally as we can and still make sure everyone is safe. There are times when we have to watch the students more closely, on the playground for instance, to make sure they’re keeping safe distances, but we’re trying to function as normally as possible,” said Burnside.
The school published a re-entry plan prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year that laid out its expectations from all who are involved with the parochial school.
“We’re simply trying to keep the connections going and everyone informed throughout COVID,” Burnside said. “You can tell their families have worked with them before coming to school. They’ve just been wonderful.”
Burnside taught for 23 years in public schools and served as a principal for 14 years, first at East Dale Elementary and then White Hall Elementary. She also trained student teachers at Fairmont State University before accepting the Fairmont Catholic position.
She said one key to the school’s early success during fall semester has been the support the school has received.
“We’ve gotten so much support. It’s not just the people at Fairmont Catholic. It’s our Wheeling-Charleston diocese, it’s Father Joe Konikattil, it’s all the surrounding parishes, alumni and community. Everybody has helped us,” Burnside said.
She believes the religious element incorporated into her school’s days has helped in dealing with the stress of the COVID-19 chaos.
“Here at Fairmont Catholic, we can bring God and faith and our spiritual values to the job and it’s been very rewarding for me. When things get really difficult, we can always go to church, where it gives us time to reflect, be silent and give thanks,” said Burnside.