Although the coronavirus pandemic will make the first day of school this year more different than ever before, three new principals are up to the challenge. Amid the uncertainty, the principals — two who are teachers taking on new roles, and one who is already a principal but taking on an additional school — are simply looking forward to seeing their students again.
Tanya Fischer is the principal at St. Mary School in Morris and Sara Kriefall will be taking over as interim principal at Sacred Heart School in Staples. Heather Pfannenstein, who served her first year as principal of Sts. Peter and Paul School in Richmond last year, will also now be in charge of St. Boniface School in Cold Spring.
All three have been planning this summer to help their students get the most out of their school experience — whether it be in-person classes, online instruction or a hybrid of the two. Their hope is to welcome students in person in the fall.
“We are working very hard to put in place the best plan possible for our students,” Fischer said. “The safety of our students, families and staff are of the utmost importance to us — we miss our students and really want to see them back in school.”
During this unprecedented time, principals, teachers, staff and parents have all been asked to step into roles and expectations they have not previously known, said David Fremo, superintendent of Catholic schools and director of Catholic Education Ministries for the Diocese of St. Cloud.
“Our communities, state and nation are saddled with uncertainty about the present and future,” Fremo said. “We are used to familiar timetables in planning and making decisions for our families, but that has been upended in countless ways. Enrollment projections and
budgeting has been more difficult as many families are delayed in their decision-making.”
Fremo has been working with principals around the diocese to ensure they have the resources they need and know and understand the guidelines put out by the state and diocese.
“The safety of our students, families and staff are of the utmost importance to us — we miss our students and really want to see them back in school.”
“My hope for this year is that we can give the best educational opportunities for our students and families,” said Kriefall. “I know that the uncertainty is unsettling, but the school staff and those at the diocesan level have been doing their best to make sure schools can reopen safely.”
“We will be following the diocesan guidelines, Minnesota Department of Health recommendations, CDC recommendations and other resources to continue creating our reopening plan,” Pfannenstein said.
Fischer was finishing her second year of teaching fourth grade at St. Mary’s when the principal position opened in the midst of COVID-19.
She prayed for God to send somebody qualified, not thinking of applying herself right away.
“I’ve never felt that nudge from Him so diligently before,” she said. “He was like, no, this is where I need you to step up.”
Fischer, who is a member of Assumption Parish in Morris, taught first grade for eight years before moving to fourth grade. She moved into her new position as principal July 1.
“I think learning at a young age to listen, to be still and listen to what God is calling us to do, and learning at that young age that we might have plans, but it might not be God’s plan, and to just be patient and He will show you the way,” Fischer said. “And that’s where my faith background and growing up [attending] a Catholic school and learning those life lessons early on has really helped me.”
Fischer said the small class sizes she experienced as a student attending St. Mary School in Long Prairie are part of why she wanted to work in Catholic schools.
“[Our classes] were very tight-knit,” she said. “I feel like we just developed closer friendships, and a lot of those friends, those people that I still keep in touch with, go all the way back to my time at St. Mary’s in elementary school.”
Now, the already-small class sizes at St. Mary in Morris may have an unforeseen advantage, she said. If the coronavirus guidelines for schools end up calling for no more than 50% capacity, the school could still hold classes as normal.
“If kids can grow with Christ from a young age and be academically strong, our futures are much brighter.”
Pfannenstein, who is a member of St. Mary’s Cathedral Parish in St. Cloud, taught in the public-school system in Brainerd, Minnesota, for nine years before taking on the role of principal at Sts. Peter and Paul last year.
Her decision to pursue a role in Catholic education came through the encouragement of mentors and her husband, challenging conversations, and books about Catholic education, she said.
“God used individuals around me and some experiences to shift my thinking,” she said.
Aside from the challenges of the coronavirus, she will face new challenges running two schools, she said.
“One of the challenges I’m most aware of is balancing the needs of two schools and making sure I am present and visible as much as possible,” Pfannenstein said.
“When we combine our Catholic faith with academic education, we are able to have hope and believe that God is the healer of many of the challenges students and families face,” she said. “If kids can grow with Christ from a young age and be academically strong, our futures are much brighter.”
Kriefall, who is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Staples, has been involved in Catholic education since she graduated from the University of North Dakota in 2015, teaching preschool in Crookston, fifth- and sixth-grade in Browerville and, most recently, kindergarten at Sacred Heart.
“As a student I had many teachers that had a considerable impact on me, lighting the fire to become a teacher,” she said “The Church has also had such an impact on my life. The idea of combining these two important passions was very easy. I am grateful that as a Catholic educator that we can use our faith in God to help our students grow and learn.”
Fremo said he is committed to helping educators and those they serve deal with the stress and trauma of the pandemic.
“We have a wonderful, dedicated educator workforce, but they are being asked to do so much at this time,” he said.
Despite the uncertain plans for reopening the schools, these new principals and their colleagues around the diocese are ready to move forward.
“My hope for this year is that our students know how much they are loved by their teachers, our staff and Christ, and that in the midst of this crisis, God renews and blesses our schools and churches,” Pfannenstein said.