Q & A with Superintendent Pamela Lyons

Lead writer
Catholic San Francisco
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Superintendent of Schools Pamela Lyons talked with Catholic San Francisco about the educational challenges of the past two years and how looking at our faith story has helped administrators, teachers and students navigate them with grit and grace. Catholic Schools Week is Jan. 30 – Feb. 5, 2022, a good time to take a look at the state of our Catholic schools.

CSF: The new year marks almost two years of dealing with the changing complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic in our schools. Where are we today in terms of masks, testing and vaccines for students and staff?

Schools Superintendent Pamela Lyons

Pamela Lyons: Like everything else with the pandemic, it has been a little complicated, but things are running smoothly. Dealing with COVID-19 is just something we do now.

We are still following all the individual county health guidelines. Unless a medical exemption has been granted, all students and staff at our schools wear masks indoors. Some schools that aren’t required to are still masking outdoors to be extra-cautious. The kids are so used to wearing masks that more than half of them are still wearing them outside at the schools where they don’t have to.

Last year if someone came down with COVID-19, the entire cohort had to stay home for two weeks. Now, we monitor anyone who has been exposed to a person with COVID-19 for more than 10 minutes without a mask and at a distance less than 6 feet. If they have symptoms, they have to quarantine. If they don’t have symptoms, they are still tested, twice. If both tests are negative, no quarantine is necessary.

I can’t emphasize enough the work of my team. I’ve got four associate superintendents who worked so hard supporting their schools and navigating all the sometimes rapidly changing health protocols. We are grateful for the school leaders, teachers and families for trusting us.

CSF: What about the vaccine for students?

PL: The next big challenge for us is going to be the vaccine for students. At this time, teachers and staff either have to be vaccinated or must be tested every week. There is no vaccine mandate in California for students, and we are not documenting which of our students are vaccinated and which are not.

When the California state legislature returns this month, I’m pretty sure there is going to be something about a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for students brought before it. I think there is a pretty good chance there will be a mandate that allows for a parental exception.

CSF: What have you noticed, if anything, about your students/staff since the full return of in-person learning?

PL: This year I am doing what I call my superintendent’s “listening and learning tour” of all of our archdiocesan elementary schools. I’ve done about 18 so far this year. Pretty much across the board, principals say that everyone is so happy to be back together and not stuck in the house on Zoom.

You can really feel that energy when you walk through the classrooms. The students never thought that school was something that could be taken away from them. Now I think many of them have a new appreciation for being able to be together in a community.

As far as our faculty and staff, last year was admittedly hard on them. First it was remote learning, then it was hybrid learning, where some kids are at home and others are in class. I definitely see and sense the relief that “now that we are all back in the classroom together I can actually do my job.”

But it hasn’t been luck. When a crisis happens, if there are cracks in the foundation they show up and the whole thing falls apart. We were able to come through this because of our strong foundation.

CSF: You reported earlier that scholastic test results seemed to indicate that Catholic school students who returned more quickly to in-person learning than public school counterparts suffered less “learning loss.” Have you seen continued evidence?

PL: Our students take the Renaissance Star Assessment test four times a year. The last test in November 2021 showed that across the board as an archdiocese, every single grade saw academic growth. While there are other things teachers are dealing with in the classroom, kids are still learning. I was really pleased with that report.

CSF: What other things are teachers dealing with?

PL: While we haven’t noticed a learning loss, what we have noticed is a bit of a developmental loss in social skills. Some of our kids who have been remote learning the whole time haven’t been around other kids for a year and a half. Behaviors that we’re seeing in eighth grade we would normally see in sixth grade. I definitely feel that social/emotional learning is what we have to focus on in a special way. That is where our faith is such a gift in our Catholic schools. We’re able to look to the Gospels and talk about the struggles of Jesus and other people in the Bible and use those as examples of what we are going through right now. It just adds another dimension that I think is really important.

CSF: Have there been any surprising or positive outcomes to the last year or two?

PL: Our enrollment is up this year for the first time in 15 years. I think that is really a testament to the great work of our Catholic schools. They’ve always done a great job, but they really came through last year with COVID-19. Unfortunately, Catholic school enrollment has been on a 15 percent downward trend nationwide for some time. This year at our archdiocesan schools, we are up 2 percent in enrollment. We’ve taken in a lot of new students. I have some schools who took in as many as 20 new students in September 2020. Our virtual program was really solid, our getting back to in-person learning quickly last year really spread by word of mouth. That’s been very exciting for us. But it’s also a blessing, with a bit of a learning curve.