KINGSTON – For the last 34 years, Janet Lyons has been shaping the hearts and minds of Catholic elementary school students at Good Shepherd Academy. With diocesan schools preparing to reopen soon for in-person instruction five days a week, she is excited to return to the classroom.
“I really, truly miss the children. It’ll be nice to get back to some kind of normalcy,” the veteran educator said. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Lyons feels the safety procedures put into place by the diocese will help mitigate any potential risks of the virus.
“I do believe they’re in the safest place they could be. They’re like my own children. As a teacher, you do treat them like that, you look at them like that. You protect them and they will be protected in this school,” she added.
Lyons teaches second grade at the Luzerne County school with her colleague, Jennifer Jones, who is also excited to get back to in-person instruction.
“The kids thrive on routine. I’m excited to make eye contact and there is nothing like that conversation one-onone with somebody, face-to-face and just making the kids feel back to normal and comfortable,” Jones said.
“It’s an opportunity to get back to teaching our faith and living our faith with these kids side-by-side. We always made that connection through distance learning but now I feel it’s a better opportunity to really embrace our Catholic identity and our Catholic faith and do what we love.”
The last time teachers were in the classroom was Friday, March 13. On that day, Governor Tom Wolf ordered all schools to close as the coronavirus began to spread in Pennsylvania. On the following Monday, March 16, the Diocese of Scranton Catholic School System launched its distance learning initiative. Five months later, Jones, a parent of two children herself, will be sending both kids back to Catholic Schools in the diocese in addition to being back in the classroom herself. Both teachers and students will need to wear masks and desks will be physically distanced from one another.
“I think everything is a teachable moment. This is an opportunity to teach selflessness and showing the kids that these small sacrifices that we’re making are going to pay off for everyone and it really goes back to our Catholic identity and the golden rule – Love God and love others – and you do what you can to show your love for others in small, selfless ways,” Jones added.
At La Salle Academy in Jessup, teachers came together in person last week for a professional development day in the school’s gymnasium. With each teacher seated at their own table, the educators were learning how to use technology most effectively.
“I really feel that we have been afforded a lot of opportunities with the Diocese of Scranton in the years that I’ve worked here at least, for having those professional development sessions that are enhancing our abilities to teach the most effective practices,” teacher Shaina Dougherty said. Since March, Dougherty said she has missed the ‘noise’ of her classroom.
“A lot of people that aren’t teachers may see that ‘noise’ as noise, a lot of loud kids in a class. For me, it’s all about creating a community and allowing every voice to be heard and sometimes out of that noise comes incredible things,” she added.
Cody Opalka, a social studies teacher at Holy Redeemer High School, agrees that there is a special energy behind teaching and welcomes the engagement that goes along with in-person instruction.
“I’m excited and I’m positive about making it work,” Opalka stressed. When reflecting on what the first day of school will be like this year, a smile came over his face. “I’ve had a lot of first days. This one is going to be different so the butterflies are going to be there like always but it’s going to be a good different. It’s going to be about making it safe for the students, making sure they have what they need on that first day, that reassurance, so it’s going to be more of a comforting kind of entry,” he said.
In addition to in-person instruction, families in the Diocese of Scranton Catholic School System also expressed a desire for a virtual option for instruction. The Diocesan Virtual Academy will provide those families with the opportunity to begin their instruction completely online, or to transition into the Diocesan Virtual Academy, if desired, during the year.
Both options have the mission of providing an academically excellent and faith-filled experience for students. Ben Tolerico, principal of Holy Cross High School, says if parents choose a virtual education, their students will remain an important part of the Catholic school community.
“If a Holy Cross student chooses to take part in the Diocesan Virtual Academy, they’re still a part of Holy Cross. If we have any kind of activities, for example a virtual Mass, they would still be a part of that,” he said. Tolerico has spent countless hours over the summer preparing to welcome students back.
“Since May really we have been going non-stop in planning, the changing of plans, trying to figure out the right formula and it has been a lot of work. It has certainly been worthwhile work and it has just been an amazing effort and a team effort all the way throughout the top of the Diocese down to the schools in making sure we are committed to having a quality education in the safest environment possible,” Tolerico added.
A life-long educator, Tolerico said since March his teachers have been willing to go above-and-beyond. “I will never, ever be able to thank them enough for their efforts,” he said.