Rochester Catholic Schools has announced plans to start the academic year with in-person classes while taking a number of precautions to protect its staff and students.

John Wald, co-chairman for Rochester Catholic Schools’ board of trustees, says the school year will begin Aug. 31 for the system's roughly 1,100 students. The fact that the school system is relatively small will be an advantage in the pandemic era, he said.

“We have lower enrollment than the public schools do, so it gives us an opportunity to implement some of the things that may be more challenging for the public schools,” Wald said.

RCS is just one of several school systems that has decided to open its doors to in-person classes in recent weeks. Schaeffer Academy, another small, faith-based school in Rochester, recently announced it would hold in-person classes. Resurrection Lutheran School also plans to open fully this fall while implementing various precautions.

On July 30, Gov. Tim Walz announced that public school districts would be able to hold in-person classes if the local spread of COVID is below a certain number. Rochester Public Schools is expected to announce details regarding its plans for the start of the school year by the end of the week.

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Like the public school system, RCS moved to a distance-learning model this past spring in response to the pandemic. Although it was a large shift to make mid-year, Wald said there were things to be learned from the experience.

“We’ve challenged our teachers to think about: 'What are the things we learned best from distance learning, and how do we incorporate that not only during COVID, but just generally moving forward? '” Wald said. “I think there’s opportunities there.”

RCS is establishing a number of precautions for the school year, which it outlined on its website. Students will have to wear masks. The school system is asking parents to screen their children routinely before coming to school. And, dismissal times will be staggered, in addition to a number of other safety measures.

Wald said the RCS staff is still in the process of determining whether there will be a distance-learning option for students who are unable or uncomfortable returning to the actual classroom during the pandemic.

Nonetheless, the planning document clarifies that the school system may have to return to distance learning if the spread of COVID-19 becomes severe enough.

“There’s this mix of excitement to get our students back in school and a level of weariness because we’re living through this unknown period,” Wald said. “But as leaders, what we’ve said to our staff is: First and foremost, we’re going to keep our kids safe. And our staff safe. And we can figure out everything else around that.”