By JOSEPH B. NADEAU
CUMBERLAND – Yes, there have been a few bumps in the road along the way, but for Sister Rayleen A. Giannotti, RSM, principal of Mercymount Country Day School at 35 West Wrentham Road, they are waypoints through a crisis her school continues to navigate.
This week Mercymount students were in their classrooms learning from their teachers and Giannotti believes that is a testament to the school’s resilience and ability to adjust under the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
Mercymount’s students wear their face masks everywhere in the school and diligently follow other safety precautions such as hand sanitizing, wellness checks and safe social distancing to keep the virus under control so they can continue to attend in person.
That had Giannotti crediting a schoolwide effort to be safe as the reason behind Mercymount’s continued in-person operation even as other schools in the area have remained in the virtual learning mode.
“I keep saying it takes an entire community, and we have a wonderful school community,” Giannotti explained.
Everyone, teachers, parents, staff, and the school’s students in grades pre-k to 8 have teamed up to stop COVID-19 from slowing Mercymount down.
“The students are the real heroes,” Giannotti said while describing their success in wearing their masks and staying socially distanced while in their classrooms or elsewhere in the school.
It does take effort, especially with the crisis affecting a second school year since it began last March, and Giannotti makes a point of encouraging her school community to keep going each morning after the school’s 8:45 a.m. opening prayer.
That moment is shared with the Mercymount families choosing virtual attendance due to health considerations or quarantining over a COVID-19 contact or illness and Giannotti makes a point of noting no one can let their guard down, even after taking safety precautions for so long now.
“Vigilance is needed because we are getting tired,” Giannotti observed.
When the crisis began in force with the statewide shutdown of schools on March 13, Mercymount was ready with a plan to continue with virtual learning and was able to quickly implement it for all students on March 16.
“We were up and running immediately,” Giannotti said of the school’s move to using the Google Classroom and SeeSaw platforms for online learning.
Mercymount’s teachers and classroom aides continued to work with students on subjects such as math, English language arts and religion from home as the shutdown continued. The school’s teachers also took on the task of pursuing professional development in the new online teaching methods to make their students’ online experience even better, she noted.
The private Catholic school stayed on virtual learning through the end of the school year along with all the other schools in the state and then began preparing for a return to in-person learning with the start of the new school year in the fall, according to Giannotti.
The school expected to resume classes on Aug. 26, but given Gov. Gina Raimondo’s reopening plan, did some additional work and had students return on September 2.
“We put a pause in place to make sure we were ready,” Giannotti said.
When school did reopen for Mercymount’s 217 students, they welcome students back full-time. Giannotti pointed to the size of Mercymount’s campus, a building capable of hosting 450 to 460 students in its grade k through 8 setup.
Greater social distancing was possible and even allowed some grades such as first and second, to make use of two entire classrooms for each class, she said.
A class would have one room for sitting at their desks, she noted, and then another without desks for group activities such as reading or story time where they could gather around at safe distances while sitting on yoga mats or do indoor physical education activities in bad weather.
In other grades such as third, an extra teacher was hired so that the class size could be reduced to 15 students per teacher and the smaller grouping used to maintain safe social distancing.
For the fifth grade, where project based learning is a highlight, the school hired an aide for the fifth grade teacher so the class didn’t have to be split up and could make use of whiteboards to project lessons in two classroom spaces for the pod group.
Sixth graders are now attending in the school’s science room with each student sitting at their own science table to maintain social distancing, Giannotti noted.
Students in the seventh and eighth grades are in individual classrooms while also maintaining safe social distancing under a pod approach, according to Giannotti.
While middle students may have gone outside their classrooms for electives preCOVID-19, now electives such as Spanish, Art, Computers or robotics come to them as subject teachers visit with their carts, Giannotti explained.
All of that has kept Mercymount running in-person even as other schools in the state returned to virtual instruction during Gov. Raimondo’s Pause to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The school shut down for two days when a teacher had difficulty in get contact tracing completed but returned when the delay was resolved, Giannotti noted.
The school has learned from its experiences with testing and quarantining and Giannotti said it has gotten the process of responding to a contact incident down to a science.
Last week for example, a second grade class went virtual when someone in the teacher’s household had a contact and had to await test results. The person was negative and the in-person instruction resumed after everything checked out, according to Giannotti.
The school was also able to make use of best practice online information available through the National Catholic Education Association and other agencies from countries such as Denmark Japan, Greece and Korea that had success in keeping their schools open during the pandemic, Giannotti explained.
With in-person classes continuing at Mercymount, Giannotti said the school’s adjustments to the crisis have made the difference with everyone doing their part.
“It has worked, but it’s hard, and it’s the community and we are supporting each other, no question,” Giannotti said.
“If not for the parents, we wouldn’t be able to do this, if not for the teachers and staff, we would not be able to do this, and the kids, that is why we have been able to do it,” Giannotti said.
“That’s why I can’t pat myself on the back,” Giannotti said. “It’s the community’s success.”
In the coming months, Giannotti hopes the greater distribution of COVID-19 vaccines will finally bring Mercymount’s pandemic odyssey to a close.
“I’m definitely looking forward to the roll out the vaccinations rolling out in a more comprehensive way,” the principal said.
Mercymount has seen how that has worked with its annual flu vaccination programs for students and staff, Giannotti said.
“If you make it easy and make it accessible, people will get them,” Giannotti said of the vaccines.
Follow Joseph Nadeau on Twitter @JNad75