GREEN BAY — Teachers in the Green Bay Area Catholic Education (GRACE) system are receiving extra credit for their work this year.
The extra credit comes from an anonymous donor in the form of a $1,000 gift to each of the approximately 188 educators.
GRACE consists of nine Catholic schools serving 23 Green Bay area parishes with a total enrollment of 2,200 students in grades pre-K to grade 8.
The donation was announced during a press conference held Tuesday, May 4, at Holy Family School. Kim Desotell, GRACE president, was joined by Bishop David Ricken, GRACE board of trustees chairperson Bill Micksch and Jodi Sullivan, a first-grade teacher at Holy Cross School in Green Bay. Principals and two teachers representing each school attended the press conference, which was also livestreamed to allow all school staff members to hear the announcement.
In an interview before the announcement, Desotell told The Compass that the anonymous donor wanted to thank GRACE teachers for making it possible to keep schools open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He likes that we have remained open and stayed true to our mission during COVID,” said Desotell. “He likes the fact that our students are in school, that our teachers are showing up every single day and he’s gifting every single GRACE-contracted teacher $1,000.”
During the 2020-2021 school year, all nine GRACE schools remained open throughout the pandemic. Desotell said it was through the “stamina and dedication of our teachers” and following rigorous safety protocols that schools were able to remain open.
“Coming in, they never said, ‘How many kids.’ They never said ‘What do I do differently?’ They just figured it out,” she said. “They followed the safety guidelines that were put in place and they just did their jobs. So this (gift) is coming to them at a time when it will help them to feel very affirmed and very grateful that somebody has recognized what they have done.”
Sullivan, who attended the May 4 press conference, said her initial reaction to the anonymous donor’s gift “was that of gratitude and appreciation.”
“What we have done this year has been challenging. We, as teachers, as well as our school staff, have made numerous accommodations to make in-person learning possible,” she told The Compass in an email. “We do it because the children are at the heart of everything that we do.”
GRACE teachers were required to rethink everyday routines, said Sullivan.
“We spent a lot of time figuring out how to make things work so that we would be able to stay learning in person,” she said. “Routines such as walking in the halls, locker use and … how to use school supplies, all had to be reimagined. We even had to think of a way to use the SMART Board together.”
Sullivan said her first-grade students adjusted well to the changes. “They are happy to be in school. They are happy to be with their friends,” she said. “These students are learning to read and write (and) have grown leaps and bounds. They are proud of themselves for all they have accomplished this year.”
As she anticipates school returning to a pre-COVID routine next fall, Sullivan said she is most excited to celebrate all-school Masses again. “This year we go to Mass on different days so we can social distance in church,” she said. “There is no singing at Mass. The students have not prepared Masses. I miss preparing Mass with my first-graders and I look forward to having them lead Mass again.”
Desotell said the donation also honors the GRACE system.
“We are the second largest (private school) system in the state of Wisconsin, and it’s not recognizing one group of teachers or one school or one side of town,” she said. “It is recognizing the system as a whole. That, to me, speaks volumes. When we made the decision to remain open and keep our doors open, it was a systemwide decision and those teachers did not question it, they did not complain. They very much saw it as their vocation. They trusted what they were walking into every single day.”
According to Desotell, safety measures prevented any virus outbreak during the pandemic.
“Our COVID numbers are pretty much zero,” she said. “We’ve had some quarantining, we’ve had very minimal positivity. … If there was a staff member who was in close contact or even positive, they stayed home, healed, got better and returned when they were ready. We initiated a partnership with a nurse line that helped to guide our medical decisions, like quarantining. So we put some pieces in place to give us more decision-making power and to guide us with confidence in what we were doing day in and day out.”
Desotell said the schools faced a few hardships along the way.
“It was difficult to find subs if someone was out,” she said. “It was hard for children and teachers to be away if they were quarantined. That was a bit of a challenge, but that was usually for 10 days or two weeks.
“The other hard thing we ran into this year that was difficult for us — and we are moving out of that now — was not allowing visitors into our buildings,” said Desotell. “It was really hard to say ‘no’ to our parents because they are partners in our education. We need them in our schools. So for us to make that decision and hold it through the year was difficult and challenging.”
Wearing face masks every day was also challenging, she said, “but everyone is finding a way to be joyous. Our families are so grateful that our doors are open, and that we stayed open. We have received a lot of compliments from public schools, surrounding areas.”
“Our enrollment grew through COVID because we did keep our doors open and the families that came in from the public schools into GRACE during COVID are staying with us and have reenrolled for next year,” she noted.
Desotell said GRACE enrollment is up 150 students from a year ago. “So we have some really nice outcomes that are showcasing what we’ve done and how we’ve been committed to putting students first and allowing decisions to be guided by safety and medicine and science, but yet making sure faith is a part of that and making sure that we are doing it in a way that puts students first as well,” she said.