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Private schools reopen classrooms for the first time since early spring

Photo by Jamie Wiggan

A student’s temperature is tested upon entering the building at Robinson Township Christian School.

By Jamie Wiggan


Students at private schools are overwhelmingly returning to the classroom this fall, contrasting with the trend among public schools of resuming virtual instruction.

Administrators say the excitement has been high among returning students.

“We’re all just so happy to see the kids’ smiling faces,” said Christine Assetta, president of Archangel Gabriel School in Robinson. “So far it’s gone very smoothly.”

Students at Archangel Gabriel returned to the classroom on Sept. 8 for the first time since the pandemic ramped up in mid-March. By opting for in-person learning, the private Catholic K-8 center followed the trajectory of most other parish schools in the diocese.

St Phillip School in Crafton has likewise resumed brick-and-mortar operations, and both schools have included virtual options for students or families uncomfortable with reintegrating.

Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (OLSH) in Coraopolis is overseen by the Felician Sisters convent rather than Pittsburgh’s Catholic diocese and has accordingly carved out a different path. There, by default, students are following a hybrid model, where they spend half their time in class and the other half learning from home. Families strongly committed to either pathway also have the option of enrolling their children in full remote learning and full in-person learning tracks.

Evangelical schools Robinson Township Christian School in Robinson and Rhema Christian School in Moon have similarly welcomed students back to their brick-and-mortar sites this fall.

“It’s been going very well,” said Bryan Campbell, principal at Robinson Township Christian, which reopened in late August. “…Our impetus was to go back to on-site schooling, so long as it is safe.”

While all public schools were required to submit a detailed reopening plan to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) before the start of term, private schools were advised to follow the guidelines but left to devise their own particular procedures.

Robinson Township Christian put together a task force of educators, parents and healthcare professionals, which determined a full return would be viable if the appropriate precautions were put in place.

Accordingly, parents are asked to monitor children for potential symptoms before sending them to school each day. Once they arrive there, all students and staff are temperature-tested upon entering the building.

Inside the school, students have to wear masks at all times other than when seated in the classroom and appropriately spaced from neighboring students.

“I really think we have a good solution, one that is very compliant with what the CDC is saying and the PDE,” Campbell said. “But it’s also very compliant with what we think we need to be doing to serve our God and our constituents as a Christian school.”

The Catholic diocese worked with leaders from each parochial school to develop a unified strategy for reopening, which each community then adapted to meet its own particular needs.

Assetta said weekly meetings with diocesan staff Michelle Peduto, director of Catholic Schools and Sharon Brown, regional administrator, were essential to Archangel Gabriel’s successful reopening plan.

“Because of their leadership I think we have a good plan in place,” she said.

“They have been so instrumental in helping us get up and running in the school year.”

Archangel Gabriel also collaborated with its own school community, assembling a task force of educators and parents that included four medical professionals.

“We’ve worked really well together as a team,” she said.

Similar to Robinson Township Christian, Archangel Gabriel requires temperature checks, mask-wearing and social distancing measures in line with state and federal guidelines.

Assetta said most of the costs required to implement the new procedures, such as obtaining face shields, face masks and desk shield, were fronted by parent donations.

In line with the diocesan guidelines, Archangel Gabriel has developed an opt-in virtual track, and also has a contingency virtual plan ready, should the pandemic significantly worsen during the school year.

Assetta said the majority of students have chosen to return to school, with around 50 out of a total population of nearly 300 opting for the school’s virtual track.

Although it switched to remote learning for the latter months of the spring term, Robinson Township Christian has not made an online option available this year.

We are an on-site school — we’re not a remote school,” Campbell said. “That’s how we are effective.”

Sick students will however have the option to tune in to live-streamed classes while at home recovering.

Campbell believes the small staff size and close-knit community makes Robinson Township Christian more adaptable in the face of unexpected change.

“It’s hard being a small, private school, just having to deal with the ups and downs of enrollment,” he said. “…We’ve always been a very adaptable and flexible school.”

Although some students un-enrolled this year due to safety concerns, Campbell said the school’s decision to reopen has on balance attracted more families who are unconvinced by the prospect of long-term virtual learning.

The K-12 school is still open to new prospective families, Campbell added.

Meanwhile, Assetta said enrollment is strong at Archangel Gabriel, which recently formed from the merging of Holy Trinity and St. Malachy Schools.

“We’re very fortunate here at Archangel Gabriel because we have high enrollment.”

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