As a new academic year approaches and schools prepare to reopen amid the COVID pandemic, “hybrid” is a word we’re hearing quite often.

It generally refers to a combination of on-line and in-classroom learning platforms schools are adopting to conform to COVID restrictions and minimize the risk of a Corona-virus outbreak. Leo, for example, will begin the 2020-21 school year in an 80-20 format: approximately 80 percent of the instruction will be on-line, and roughly 20 percent will be conducted in person for any students who seek it.

Throughout the summer, Principal Shaka Rawls, Academic Coordinator Jennifer Fleck and Technology Supervisor Santorice Ross have been hard at work developing an instruction platform that complies with COVID restrictions regarding health and safety but still maintains Leo’s traditionally strong educational focus. 

The plan calls for “On-Lion Learning”—on-line classes will be held Monday through Thursday, during normal school hours, with students logging in from home. Teachers and administrators will be available at Leo each Friday for any student or parent who seeks in-person consultation. These interactions require an appointment and will be limited to 40 students at a time, per COVID restrictions. In addition to the Friday sessions, teachers will conduct “office hours” after class Monday through Thursday and remain available on-line to any student with questions about that day’s lesson.

The Archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Schools and the Big Shoulders Fund have signed off on Leo’s plan. It’s a departure from OCS reopening guidelines, which encourage more classroom instruction. But it takes into account the high incidence of COVID in Auburn Gresham and surrounding communities. The plan will be evaluated after the first quarter of the school year, approximately 10 weeks, and adjusted, if need be.

“Along with our mission of providing a high-quality, values-based education to our students, our top priority is the health and safety of our young men and their families, as well as the health and safety of our faculty, staff and the entire Leo School Community,” Principal Rawls said. 

“I know there’s research that’s often cited saying young people are less likely to get COVID, and if they do, it’s less damaging. That may be true. But we deal with a lot of multi-generational families here at Leo. One of our students might get it and not even be symptomatic, but if he goes home and spreads it to a grandparent, we’re talking about a very vulnerable population.”

Leo administrators took into account Leo’s success in building an on-line platform for the final 10 weeks of the 2019-2020 school year. Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all Illinois schools closed in mid-March, which limited Leo to remote learning exclusively for the fourth quarter.

“Our students took to on-line learning very well for the most part, and the buy-in from the teachers was outstanding,” Rawls said. “So we have a track record. Given where we are and what we’re facing, this is clearly the best way for us to go.

“And we’ll make it work. We’re Leo.”

Early returns have been encouraging. Opening Day took place on Thursday, August 13. Some of the usual pomp and circumstance was missing due to COVID restrictions, but nearly 200 students turned out.

Masks in place, hands freshly scrubbed and sanitized and observing social-distancing parameters, they received their schedules, met their teachers and were given a detailed breakdown of how remote learning will work when school resumes on Monday, August 17.

“It was great to see the kids again, and to welcome the freshmen,” said Dan McGrath, who is beginning his 11th year as Leo’s president. “It’s going to be an unusual year, but we’ll make the best of it.”

One week earlier, on Thursday, August 6, Principal Rawls held a Zoom call for Leo parents, outlining our approach to the school year and the reasoning behind it. The reaction among the more than 140 parents on the call was overwhelmingly positive. They seemed to appreciate the thought and preparation that went into crafting the plan.

“I’m absolutely convinced that this is the best approach for us,” Principal Rawls said. “It’s obviously not ideal, and we’ll evaluate it as we go, but our commitment to educating our young men will be as strong as ever.”