WILTON — What was once considered a weakness, is now seen as a strength, as Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy plans to reopen with classes capped at 14 students.

The school will join other schools in the Bridgeport Diocese opening on a full, in-class basis for children in kindergarten through eighth grade, beginning Aug. 31. The pre-K classes for 3- and 4-year-olds will open a week later on Sept. 8.

It was only two months ago that the school was on the brink of closing due to a fundraising crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and low enrollment numbers. The school raised more than the $140,000 in a matter of days, and now its small class sizes are attracting new families as many public schools, including Wilton, plan to reopen with a hybrid model.

The decision on how to reopen was made early in the summer — as far back as June — Principal Stanley Steele said.

“We decided very early we were not going to explore a hybrid model,” he said. Unlike public schools, which must accept all students who enroll, “as a private school we can cap enrollment.”

The decision on how to reopen, Steele said, was made by a safety committee composed of school nurses, teachers, parents and Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle. It was approved by the Diocese of Bridgeport.

Steele said the school’s plan will be assessed on a daily basis.

“The thing that gives us great encouragement is the success of the European schools,” he said. That along with rules about frequent hand-washing, social distancing and the wearing of masks, as well as the cap on the number of students in each classroom, make him optimistic they can move forward.

Changes

The school is adjusting in the hopes of making full, in-person classes a success.

When classes began last year, Our Lady of Fatima launched its academy model and introduced multi-age classrooms for pre-K through fifth grade. As such, there will be one classroom for grades K-1, 2-3, and 4-5. There will also be one classroom each for sixth through eight grades. There are still spaces available for families that would like to enroll their children and the school is large enough that a new class could be opened if needed.

On a daily basis, parents must fill out a health survey and students will have their temperatures taken upon arriving at school before their parents drive away.

“If a child has a fever they won’t get beyond the front door,” Steele said.

School start and dismissal times will be staggered by grade level to minimize the number of students in the hallways at any one time.

Within each classroom, desks will be set up in rows facing the front of the room, 6 feet apart. This is a departure from previous classroom setups where desks were clustered. All unnecessary rugs and furniture that can’t be sanitized have been removed.

Students will stay in their classrooms and teachers for special subjects will rotate. Subject matter has also been scrutinized. For example, in music classes and tap dancing will be taught since singing is not encouraged due to the possibility of spreading the virus, Steele said.

Students will remain in their classrooms for lunch, but each is being asked to bring a beach blanket. The school has four canopies and when weather permits, classes will be held outdoors.

Children will wear their face coverings in class, for at least part of the day. “If they are sitting at their desks, under the teacher’s direction, they will have multiple mask breaks,” Steele said. They also will be exempt from wearing masks when classes are held outdoors and for gym and recess, since the school has spacious grounds.

Play areas will be available to one group at a time. Sharing of toys, balls and other items will be limited on a class-by-class basis and all equipment will be sanitized between uses.

Should a child become ill during the day, as often happens, there will be a supervised isolation room for those with a fever, separate from the nurse’s office.

Extracurricular activities will be offered on a case-by-case basis. Steele said a soccer clinic, such as was offered last year, is likely, as is cross-country running for fifth through eighth grade. The chess team, he said, probably will not be offered.

Remote learning on standby

Steele said none of the teachers at Our Lady of Fatima have left the school, and as a group “they are comfortable with what we are doing.

“The teachers are excited to see the kids again. We’re all excited to see the kids come back,” he said.

When schools closed in the spring, Our Lady of Fatima turned to remote learning, with children in kindergarten through third grade using iPads and those in fourth through eighth grade using Chromebooks.

“All the middle school kids were familiar with Google Classroom and teachers were running morning and afternoon Google Meets,” Steele said. The school has its remote-learning template in place and is ready to move to that if needed. But he hopes it won’t be.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, we’re excited to see the kids,” Steele said. “We’ve created the safest environment for kids and teachers. We will all have to work harder this year.”