ROSEDALE — The sound of giddy laughter and the sight of colorful face masks filled schoolyards, hallways, and classrooms as schools across the Diocese of Brooklyn reopened Sept. 8 for the first day of the 2021-22 academic year.
As principals, faculty, and staff collected health screening documents and checked temperatures, students waved goodbye to their parents while carrying their backpacks and other back-to-school essentials.
“As a product of parochial schools and now as a parish priest, it’s a delight to see that age-old Catholic school tradition — the first day of school,” said Father Daniel Kingsley, administrator of St. Clare, while greeting parents and students near one of the school’s entrances.
“Even though we had unprecedented moments last year, we were able to come together and safely have school. So this, I can say, warms my heart.”
Similar to last September, all 69 Catholic parish schools and academies reopened on time under strict health and safety guidelines, which include social distancing, wearing masks indoors, daily cleaning and sanitizing of school facilities, and the operation of enhanced ventilation systems.
“It is important that we recommit to working together for the health and well-being of all, as we did so well last year,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Chadzutko. “We want a return to normalcy in our classrooms as soon as reasonably possible, but as the coronavirus and the Delta variant continue to persist among our population, our first priority is to keep our students, faculty, and staff safe.”
At St. Clare Catholic Academy in Rosedale, Principal Mary Rafferty-Basile was eager to welcome back students in kindergarten through fourth grade on the first day, with students in grades five through eight slated to start classes the day after.
“I’m extremely excited because we had half our students streaming from home last year,” said Basile, explaining that 50% of her student population had opted to learn remotely for the 2020-21 school year. This year, just 5 of the 264 total students will be logging in from home, in real time.
St. Clare’s has also implemented a plan and procedure for students who might be coming back to school with feelings of discomfort or anxiety. Basile explained that counselors are ready and on-site, and that teachers have been trained on behavioral and verbal signs to warranting attention.
“This first week is definitely going to set the tone on how the school year is going to go,” Basile said with confidence and optimism in her voice.
Upstairs on the second floor, first-grade teacher Samentha Samuel asked her students to draw and color what they did over the summer, encouraging them to get creative and to have fun in the process. “I think when they feel safe, that’s when the true learning begins,” she said of the “new norms” in the classroom setting.
“Obviously, we’re preparing them academically, but we’re also preparing them to be good citizens in the world and to be kind to each other,” she added. “Promoting that aspect is, I feel, a lost art nowadays, and they’re never too young to learn it.”
Down the hallway, fourth-grader Jennifer Pinnock was settling into her desk with her pencil case at the ready as her teacher, Sandra Crosswell, did first-day introductions.
“I like seeing my friends, but I want to make new friends too,” Pinnock said. “And I’m most excited to have Mrs. Crosswell because when my brother and sister [currently in the seventh grade] had her, they went on trips.”
Though class trips may not be on the horizon in the near future due to the ongoing pandemic, Kimara Stanford, mother of three current St. Clare students and two St. Clare alumni, is happy to see her children back in such a loving environment that instills Catholic values.
“Not only is it a close-knit community, but I keep enrolling my kids here because I want to make sure that they have that religious foundation as well,” Stanford said. “My kids were — and still are — well prepared when they left St. Clare’s because Miss Basile and the teachers encourage and motivate them.”
More than 90 K-8 students also logged in remotely from home through the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Online Academy (STACOA), meeting their new teachers and classmates for the first time from all corners of Brooklyn and Queens — and even outside of New York State.
Dr. Stephen Haessler, principal of STACOA, remarked how wonderful it is to have students from states like Texas, Maryland, and Illinois have the opportunity to be part of this newly launched option for Catholic families.
“Each student has unique skills and abilities,” he said, “so the prospect and promise about starting a new school — with teachers and students discovering those gifts on this adventure called ‘learning’ — is amazing.”
“Even though I’m excited and nervous with those first-day-of-school jitters, one of the things that gives me comfort and confidence is our patron saint, St. Thomas Aquinas,” Haessler added. Aquinas is a patron saint of students and educators.
“I’m also confident that the Lord is going to pour down His grace, as He always does on our families and on our teachers, and that good things will happen this year.”