(First of two parts)

Much is made these days about separation of church and state.

But when it comes to bringing students back to their classrooms with COVID-19 yet to be fully dispatched, two local church-related schools plan to stick pretty close to the state.

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Department of Education mandated that each public school in the commonwealth create a pandemic coordinator or team; come up with a plan that will allow students to return safely to classroom instruction; have that plan submitted to the Department of Education and approved by the district’s board of directors; and post that plan on the district’s website prior to the opening of school.

But while public schools are required to do all of the above, “Private and parochial schools are strongly encouraged” to create such a plan and to post it on their websites, the state says.

That works for the Holy Spirit and New Castle Christian academies.

“Fortunately, much of what we need to do is outlined by the state and diocese for us,” Holy Spirit principal Ed Sharbaugh said. “We have the ability to develop our own plan according to our circumstances, but we have their guidance and direction to ensure we are operating at the utmost safety.”

Gary Hoetzler, principal of the New Castle Christian Academy, sees it the same way.

“It’s not mandated (for private schools), but I plan on doing it,” he said. “We’re going to use this as a guideline to doing things right. My goal would be by maybe mid-July, definitely by the end of July, that we’ve got something approved and posted.”

At Holy Spirit, first-grade teacher Pamela Bussard has been named coordinator of the Holy Spirit Health and Safety Plan.

“We felt like the state’s title, ‘pandemic coordinator,’ makes it sound like we are in a crisis,” Sharbaugh said. “A crisis indicates uncertainty and potential disaster. A plan is a method of doing something that is worked out well in advance.

“Right now, we are on our way to a well-designed, detailed plan.”

Bussard leads a team that is meeting regularly through Zoom conference calls, but work also is being done in smaller groups working on specific objectives, Sharbaugh said. The team includes teachers, parents, Advisory Council members and a professional cleaner.

In addition, the Diocese of Pittsburgh COVID-19 Educational Planning Team last week sent out a survey to all parents, asking their thoughts about resuming in-classroom education and their evaluation of the distance learning provided to their children during the spring.

“We are also consulting with additional nurses, a doctor and local university personnel who receive and evaluate our work and make recommendations,” Sharbaugh said. “But teachers are our best resource. They know what issues we will face when we ask a group of kindergarten students to wear a mask all day and keep 6 feet apart.”

Hoetzler has similar faith in his educators, one that was further strengthened by their ability to switch to distance learning when COVID-19 sent everyone home.

“When they closed school down March 13, we took one day off, and on March 16, I sat down with the teachers and said, “Look, you are the ones with 150 years worth of education experience. You’re the experts. This is what we have to do. Now, how do we do it?”

Hoetlzer showed his teachers a clip from the film “Apollo 13,” in which NASA engineers are tasked to find a way to make the square carbon dioxide filters of the wounded command module fit into the round receptacles of the of lunar excursion module, using only materials available to the astronauts on board.

“That’s what I’m going to do this summer, too,” Hoetzler said. “I’m going to say, OK, this is our square peg, this is our round hole. You’re the engineers. How do we make this work and make it still a loving, caring, family environment, not an operating room, but still safe for the kids.”

Hoetzler also is looking for input from parents, particularly one mother who is a pediatrician and a father who is a lung specialist.

“That’s nice to have,” he said. “The pediatrician has already said, ‘I don’t want my daughter in a mask.’ But there may be certain kids who should be in a mask. I’ve gotten some input from her, but the lung specialist is probably going to go a long way.”

Hoetzer and Sharbaugh agree that whatever plan eventually emerges from their respective committees will have to be flexible.

“We are working out the details of a strategic, tiered plan that allows for a quick response to a fluid situation,” Sharbaugh noted. “Our plan addresses cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting; how to implement social distancing and safety protocols; how to monitor students and staff, and a plan dealing with potential infection; and then how to communicate the Health and Safety Plan to families and how to train staff.

“The situation is fluid, and the plan needs to be dynamic. There will be a monitoring system in place that examines the local and state data and adjusts our practices as needed.”

Hoetzler doesn’t foresee requiring all students and teachers to wear masks, but that only goes for as long as Lawrence County remains in the green phase of COVID-19 recovery.

“If we go back to yellow, we can still do school, but maybe now, we are in masks,” he said. “If we go to red, we know we’re going back to online learning, and this time, we’ve learned what to do even better. It was trial and error before.

“But what do I do if a kid gets the virus? It could very well happen. Say, in October, I’ve got a kid in second grade who gets the virus. What do I do? If they’re isolated, then maybe I could just have that class remain at home for two weeks and teach online — or do I close the whole school for two weeks?”

Hoetzler admits that his own training as an educator never covered what to do if a global pandemic should strike. But he’s up for the fight.

“God always seems to throw something at us to show us we need to rely on him,” he said. “So, OK, here it is.”

(Tomorrow: Gary Hoetzler and Ed Sharbaugh discuss the ideas being examined for creating a safe, in-person school experience for students.”


Dan, editor, started with The News in 1978 and spent 10 years as a sports writer. He's been a general assignment reporter, copy editor, paginator and Lifestyle editor. He's a '78 Slippery Rock University graduate with a B.A. in English.

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