While Maine Catholic schools are preparing to open for in-classroom learning at the end of August or early September, All Saints School in Bangor already has some experience from which to draw. The school’s summer program, held at the St. Mary’s campus on Ohio Street, has been welcoming children for six weeks now.
Mary Soucy, the director, says, although there have been a lot of changes, the program has gone smoothly, something she attributes to careful preparation and a committed staff.
“Everybody is very helpful, and they want to make this work. They want to be there for the children and provide for the kids,” she says. “I can’t say enough about them. They’re a good group, and they know what they need to do, and they’re vigilant to make sure it all gets done.”
The summer program, which serves children from preschool through middle school, opened June 22. It started off slowly but has steadily grown in numbers, with most of the children attending either age 4 or 5.
Understanding the risks of the coronavirus and getting the program up and running meant coming up with a detailed plan to keep children and staff safe.
“We brought in a nurse and trained the staff on how to welcome the parents and the students, and how to socially distance, and how to use the personal protective equipment,” says Matthew Houghton, principal of All Saints. “Then, we organized the learning space inside the classroom and also in our general-purpose area, and we also talked about the outside play areas.”
Although the younger children are not required to wear masks at all times because of their age, the temperatures of the children are taken when they arrive to make sure they do not have a fever. In addition, there is a checklist that parents must sign off on, with questions such as whether anyone in the child’s household is sick or has traveled to states that would require a quarantine.
There is also a limit on what the children can bring with them into the school.
“Usually, preschoolers will bring in everything they own from home, so it is limited to the stuff that they need for a nap and a stuffed toy. It goes in a backpack. They bring in their water bottle. They bring in their lunch,” Soucy says.
Two school classrooms were set aside for the summer program, each with its own bathroom. Typically, the classrooms would have tables shared by students, but this year, they were replaced by desks, something the preschoolers more than took in stride.
“They thought that was really cool,” Soucy says. “This was like their own personal turf.”
Sharing arts and crafts supplies was not an option either, something that goes against what teachers would normally try to communicate children. This year, each child was given his or her own.
“They have a water bottle that they keep on their desk, and then, they have their pencil box, and inside their pencil box are all kinds of different things for them to use that are just theirs,” she says. “We separated out crayons and LEGOs and colored pencils and other little things.”
Still, Soucy acknowledges that it’s not easy to keep preschoolers apart, as much as they encourage them to keep to their own space.
“These are four, five, six-year-olds, and they want to play with their friends, and they don’t understand why they all can’t peer into a bucket where there is a slug and all watch the slug at the same time,” she says. “They have a challenging time with that.”
Soucy calls interactive whiteboards in the classroom a saving grace because they have allowed them to still have engaging lessons while not outside on the playground. And even when outside, the goal has been to have the youngsters play together, while staying somewhat separated.
“They did some relay races and things like that. We try to come up with some activities where they’re not right on top of each other. They have a chance to be out together and interacting, but they’re distanced,” Soucy says.
Along with teaching the children and keeping them entertained, the staff has an added responsibility this summer: cleaning. It’s a continual process throughout the day.
“One staff member will go out to recess, while one stays back and cleans. Then, they’ll switch. The other one goes out and the other one stays in, so it’s just really focusing on how we clean and go through the day,” explains Houghton.
Staff members regularly clean the tops of children’s desks, playground apparatus, and the bathrooms.
“We kind of envisioned what our day would look like, who was going to be cleaning,” says Soucy. “We have cleaning checklists in the bathroom. Every hour, someone goes in and cleans the bathroom or writes on the door on the checklist, ‘was not used.’”
COVID-19 has meant some limitations. For instance, Wednesday pool days and water activities are out, as is gathering in the kitchen for cooking classes and sitting together on a rug in the morning for prayer. Still, Soucy says it’s going as well as it could go.
“We had to jump off to see if we could do this, and we did,” she says. “It’s all fallen into place, and it’s fallen into place nicely.”
She credits a true team effort and a lot of prayers.
“Lots of prayer. I think that’s the big thing,” she says. “We talk about that regularly. Pray for some sort of a vaccine and pray that we still stay safe.”