Sonja Doughty, in middle with red apron, works with other staff of Merrill’s St. Francis Xavier school to prepare condiments for a take-out/delivery fish fry the school organized in October. (Facebook photo, St. Francis Xavier School)

Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Superior Peggy Schoenfuss acknowledged the extra hours that principals are putting in to cover staff shortages and the additional demands placed on Catholic schools and their administrations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schoenfuss praised Sonja Doughty, the principal at St. Francis Xavier School in Merrill, for maintaining faith while balancing the stressors and ever-changing needs of her school.

Doughty was presented the following questions by the Catholic Herald. Unable to complete an interview by phone as she was needed to substitute teach two days in a row, the principal answered by email noting she had “the help of many kiddos.”

Q. What advice have you had for parents and teachers regarding realistic expectations during these times of “more” being required of everyone involved in children’s education?

A. This is a new situation for all of us, and we are all in this together. As adults, we have all felt the stress and strain of the event happening around us. Our children are no different. We have tried to be cautious not to add to the stress for our families when it comes to our expectations.

Students need the structure and routine of school balanced with flexibility for family life and ever-changing family situations. Our main focus has been on core subjects and providing families with the tools they need to be a successful part of their student’s education.

Q. What spiritual and human elements have you relied on during the ongoing process of adapting and adjusting to a new and unpredictable normal?

A. As a parish and school staff, we belong to “Formed” and are provided with daily reflections. As the SFX leadership team, we meet weekly and begin with excerpts from Divine Renovation, a leadership book study facilitated by Dcn. Jim Arndt.

I am in a weekly Cenacle with Peggy Schoenfuss (superintendent) and other diocesan principals. Peggy has done an exceptional job keeping the line of communication open among the principals and has facilitated many meetings since the beginning of COVID.

It is through the dedication and commitment to Catholic education of our diocesan teachers, staff, and families that that has allowed our schools to open and remain open.

Q. What skills and tools have you used to remain resilient and motivated?
A. I think that people are on both ends of the spectrum and as principals, we are called to keep the peace and check our personal opinions at the door when we enter our school. We follow the directives handed down from the diocese, our public schools, and our local health department.

Q. Practically, how have you gotten through the roughest patches of this past year?

A. I’ve been in Catholic education for 20 years, including building a school. This year has been the most challenging due to the unknown.
There is no “Principal Pandemic Handbook.”

The CDC, our local health departments, and the DPI did not agree on various methods on dealing with COVID in our schools. The direction from the diocese was valuable in determining what guidelines we implemented. I’m praying that one day I can wave a magic wand and discover what exactly we did that all 14 of our schools opened, and for the most part, have been able to remain face-to-face, which we know as educators, is the best way for students to learn.