Fortier addresses school closures through the end of the year

ORLANDO | After Gov. Ron DeSantis’ announcement that Florida schools would remain closed for the remainder of the school year, Henry Fortier, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Orlando sent a letter to parents notifying them the diocese would follow the state’s lead. Students were set to return to school May 4, providing student and faculty safety could be assured. Fortier’s letter stated, “As has been our intent since our first parent announcement on Feb. 28, Diocese of Orlando Catholic Schools will follow the same directive, keeping all facilities closed and continuing with distance learning.”

In the news conference Saturday, April 18, Gov. DeSantis noted, “It’s obviously not the ideal situation, but given where we are in the school year, we felt that that was the best decision to go forward.” He added, “I think the last thing you want to do is force everyone in school and have half the kids not show up because their parents didn’t want them to go.”

The Florida Catholic (FC) asked Fortier about the closures.

FC: How will schools handle the closures?

FORTIER: In my first communication with the parents on Feb. 28, I told them we were preparing for digital learning until the end of the school year, in the event that we couldn’t re-open… Foreseeing what was occurring in other countries and the evolution of this virus, I wanted us to be ready. I’ve been working with principals since February to prepare them for eLearning until the end of the school year.

FC: How will high schools address entrance examinations for the following year?

FORTIER: Entrance tests began last December. There are some left, but we are working on that on an individual basis. Potential students should call the schools.

FC: Your letter mentioned options for graduation, prom, etcetera. Can you share some ideas?

FORTIER: We have put together a committee with representatives from each of the five high schools to begin looking at creative options, including moving dates to June and July, if we think there might be a possibility that we are clear of this. We are looking at virtual graduation and many creative options that will keep our students and their families’ safe and our staff safe. The baccalaureate Mass will air Tuesday, May 19 with representatives from all of the high schools participating in the liturgy.

For the elementary schools, pastors are still celebrating virtual Masses for the students. Each of the sites are working on their own end of the year activities virtually. Several schools are going out and providing signs and awards at students’ homes so they can receive something physically from the principal. We are sharing those resources with each other.

FC: What words of encouragement and faithful hope can you offer students and parents

FORTIER: One of the things that distinguishes us as Catholics schools, from the public schools, is that each day our teachers are doing sessions with the students together. The students are still seeing and communicating with each other in these virtual classrooms. Following our safe environment protocols for technology, our students are still connected…. There are live discussions and connectivity. We are “social” distancing, not “emotional” distancing. Emotionally, we need to stay more connected than ever. … We are honoring social distancing through the closure of our buildings, but we are ramping up our emotional connectivity through lots of activities that parishes and San Pedro are putting out for our schools from a faith aspect, needed especially at a time like this. We have virtual retreats for families, and Catholic recess for kids, being put out by the Office of Laity, Family and Life in collaboration with San Pedro. It’s a game changer. When I talk to my public school counterparts, they do not have that.

FC: Where do you see God in all of this?

FORTIER: I see God in the heart of all of it. What’s occurring is tragic. It’s altering our lives dramatically. A lot of our families have economic issues because of this. But in these difficult times, it has forced us to go back to family. To sort through all those things we thought were important – going out, purchasing things. It has forced us to go back to family, spending time together and reflecting on what our priorities are. God is sitting there in the midst of all of this as our healer, our comforter, our rock—if we take the time to include Him in that. Throughout Scripture, in the trials that Moses went through, Job with his trials and tribulations, God was always there. God is still right here, right now as our anchor, our foundation.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic April 20, 2020