Hand guiding St. Rocco's through pandemic

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At 8 a.m. on most weekday mornings, Regina Hand can be found greeting students at one of the five entrances to St. Rocco School in Johnston, attacking a barrage of emails, or gathering the day’s supplies for teachers.

The Catholic elementary school is a familiar home to the educator who has served as its physical education and health instructor for 18 years. But now, as the school’s new principal, Ms. Hand has traded in her blue Champions and athletic pants for dress slacks and a sensible pair of Clarks.

Throughout her tenure, Ms. Hand, known to her peers as Gina, has forged relationships with students, families – many with deep ties to the school – and teachers, straddling the lines between athletics and administration as a coach and advisor to the National Junior Honor Society. Having served as the interim principal since September, she was a fitting choice to lead the school when longtime principal, Mrs. Moschella, resigned. Her background –<\f>a master of science degree in education, physical education with an emphasis on administration and nearly two decades coaching various youth sports in the state – made her a natural fit for students and staff.

Like Rhode Island’s most famous Gina, Ms. Hand has been preoccupied with coronavirus data and precautions since the school’s opening, especially as 90 percent of the school’s 150 students attend in-person classes. Classes are small at St. Rocco, which allows for distancing in classrooms, and numerous protocols are in place to protect students and staff. As a result, the school experienced few interruptions during the first half of the year: Five classes were required to temporarily switch to distance learning as a result of a positive COVID-19 case. These classes experienced a smooth return to school when it was time.

While school officials believe that in-person classes provide the best learning environment for students, “we also understand that during this pandemic not everyone is comfortable with that,” said Ms. Hand. The school provides “100 percent choice,” she said, adding that remote learners also receive a robust education. To keep students and staff safe, the school has invested in a number of safety measures from air purifiers in all classrooms and disinfectant stations to a disinfectant fogging machine operated throughout the building. Parents submit daily health screenings for their children, and temperatures are taken each day prior to students entering the building. Masks are worn by all but the 3- and 4-year-old preschoolers. These measures have ensured that the school can remain open.<t$>

“Having students in person doesn’t just help them academically, but also socially,” Ms. Hand said. Students benefit, she added, from “having the interaction with their teachers and peers, and having their teachers close at hand throughout for all activities throughout the school day.”

With enrollment rising at Rhode Island’s Catholic schools, and many of the grades at St. Rocco full, parents are weighing the cost of a private education against the difficulties of remote learning.

“Obviously,” Ms. Hand acknowledged, “there are many stresses involved in creating the safest possible environment in which children can learn, and many of those stresses stem from uncertainties about the coronavirus. But parents want a first-rate Catholic education for their children, and our teachers and staff are dedicated to providing that.”

If anyone is interested in St. Rocco School for their child, please give the school office a call 401-944-2993 to ask questions or schedule a private tour. Tours are by appointment and can be scheduled safely after school hours or on weekends. During this month long lead-up to Catholic Schools Week, taking place from Jan. 31 through Feb. 6, Ms. Hand, along with the Sisters of Our Lady of the Garden, and the faculty and staff of St. Rocco School are looking forward to speaking to new parents and welcoming new students.

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