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Catholic school students in RI keeping the faith during pandemic

Romy DaMoura, 11, a sixth grader at Bishop McVinney Regional School in Providence, said his faith in God reminds him that "things will get better soon." He poses with his cousin, Nelson DaMoura, 6, who is a first grader at the school. (WJAR)
Romy DaMoura, 11, a sixth grader at Bishop McVinney Regional School in Providence, said his faith in God reminds him that "things will get better soon." He poses with his cousin, Nelson DaMoura, 6, who is a first grader at the school. (WJAR)
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Monday marked the first day of in-person learning at public schools across Rhode Island amid the coronavirus pandemic, but most Catholic schools have been back at it for a few weeks now.

“It feels pretty good getting back to school,” Olivia Kelly, 13, an eighth grader at St. Thomas Regional School in Providence, told NBC 10 News as parents dropped of their children and school buses made their rounds.

While Olivia doesn’t really like wearing a mask, she and her classmates know it’s necessary to help keep everyone safe. Plus, they said, the staff has been helpful and accommodating.

“It feels weird with a mask on, but they try as much as they can to let us outside so we can take our masks off,” Matora Kpangbai, 13, said. “It’s better than I thought it would be. It’s not that bad. We still get our work done and we still have our regular routine, it’s just with masks and stuff like that.”

Mia Santagata, 13, shared similar sentiments. She said lunch and recess give them a chance to take their masks off, but they must practice social distancing and stay in their pods.

“Once we’re done eating, we have to put them back on,” she said of their masks. “But other than that, it’s normal.”

Even the kindergartners donned masks, with Zoe, 5, telling NBC 10 she was looking forward to playing with friends and seeing teachers.

“I feel good,” Zoe said.

Zyon, 7, a second grader, agreed, with Charles, 6, a kindergartner, waving bye to his father, Justin, as his dad drove off and he headed to school.

But no matter their age or grade, all students must be checked for coronavirus symptoms as soon as they arrive.

“The entire faculty is out there greeting kids every morning,” said Mary DiMuccio, who is the principal.

“It’s amazing that we are back to school in the middle of a pandemic and it’s like they haven’t missed a beat,” DiMuccio added. “Even though there are all these extra precautions in place, they are handling it fantastically.”

Each day, students are required to fill out a form online, stating that they don’t have symptoms and have not been exposed to the virus.

“The parents have to fill them out for them to be able to get out of the car or to get on a school bus,” Tracy Colagiovanni, who is the vice principal, said.

“Then, we take their temperature and sanitize their hands,” she said. “It’s the safest way to come back -- it’s the only way to come back.”

The school started with a “slow opening,” with just Pre-K and kindergarten on Sept. 2, adding first and second grade the next day, then welcoming third and four grade the following day, then fifth through eighth grade by Sept. 8.

“There was a ton of planning that went into it,” DiMuccio said.

During a phone interview, Daniel Ferris, who is the superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Providence, said most schools started off the school year similarly.

“It’s a very good approach,” Ferris said. “They were able to test their safety plans and see if the protocols they had in place would work, from everything from drop offs to bringing students into the classrooms. They learned what worked and what didn’t work so they could make adjustments before the next group of kids came in.”

Ferris visited Bishop McVinney Regional School in Providence late Friday afternoon to meet with Lou Hebert, who is the school’s principal. Before entering the building, Ferris underwent a temperature check, filled out a health screening form, and put on a mask.

“There’s no bias for the superintendent,” he said, noting that he’s not allowed inside the building when students are present. “Even I can’t come in the building because I will disrupt the stable groups, or pods. I have to either be here before school opens or after school closes.”

Once inside, Ferris teamed up with Hebert.

“Everyone was a little uncertain about reopening, but I have to tell you that it’s been going great,” Hebert said.

The first day of school, he said, was memorable, as educators hadn't seen their students in-person in more than six months. He said they were all happy to be reunited.

“It was the best I’ve felt since March,” Hebert said. “With all the paperwork and all the planning and all the meetings, it was all adults. To have the students back again just made me feel so good.”

On Monday afternoon, Hebert and his staff were outside school during dismissal, helping parents and talking to students as they waited for their rides.

Sandra DaMoura was there picking up her 11-year-old son, Romy, a sixth grader, and her nephew, Nelson, 6, who is in the first grade. She said she is pleased Hebert and his team are going the extra mile for her loved ones.

“I feel very good about what they are doing,” she said. “I think they’re doing a really good job.”

Principals at both schools said the facilities are being cleaned constantly, with Plexiglass in place and plenty of hand sanitizer. There are also designated entrances and exits, and new drop off and pick up procedures.

“The parents are very supportive of the new policies,” Hebert said. “They wave and thank us.”

Father John Soares, who is the pastor of St. Thomas, agreed, noting that parents have been cooperative and grateful. The same is true for students.

“The kids have been adjusting really well,” Father Soares said. “They’ve been doing really well with mask-wearing and social distancing. They know what they are supposed to do, and parents have been super.”

Ferris noted that the Diocese oversees 38 Catholic schools across the state, with about 9,000 students and approximately 700 educators and staff members. He said he held weekly Zoom call with principals to work through details and relied on guidance from the Rhode Island Department of Health, as well as Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office, to reopen.

“We have felt very supported by the governor,” Ferris said.

In about four weeks, Ferris said educators will provide formative assessments to see how students are doing during the start of the new academic year.

Until then, educators are determined to keep schools open safely. Aside from mask-wearing and social distancing, they said they have been making sure classrooms are properly ventilated and cleaned.

“We’re really working as a team so we can stay in school and keep our school family safe and I think that makes all the difference,” DiMuccio said.

Ferris agreed. He said while planning it all wasn’t easy, it’s been smooth sailing so far.

“It’s been a Herculean task to put together and think through every detail, but it’s worked very well,” Ferris said. “In my professional life, I have never been part of a more collaborate effort for the good of getting the schools back open and the kids back in the classroom."

As for the children, they said they are letting their faith in God lead the way.

“My faith helps me a lot because I know that things will get better soon,” Romy said. “I pray that they will get better soon.”

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