WINDSOR TERRACE — For the first time in nearly six months, students, faculty, and staff in the Catholic schools and academies of Brooklyn and Queens have reunited in person, in the safest ways possible.
Today, Sept. 9, marked the start of a new academic year but the ongoing pandemic has drastically changed the way daily classes will be conducted this fall.
Everyone entering a school building in the diocese must have his/her temperature checked, submit a daily questionnaire about his/her current health, wear a face covering, and remain socially distant at six feet apart.
The principal and assistant principal at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Academy in Bellerose, Queens, warmly welcomed students from kindergarten, first grade, and second grade outside on the sidewalk in front of the school. Once temperature-checked, the students waved goodbye to their parents and walked into the schoolyard where teachers facilitated proper social distancing amongst the classes.
“While this is probably the weirdest back-to-school day I’ve experienced in my 28 years of education, it’s probably also the most exciting back-to-school day too,” Principal Lynn Alaimo told The Tablet just moments before the schoolyard gate opened at 7:50 a.m. “If you ask all the teachers, they would say they’ve been waiting for this since March. They’ve been missing their kids and have missed being in the building. So there’s a lot of excitement today, but there’s a lot of anxiety too.”
“Today is about getting the children into the building with the staff for the first time and making sure everybody feels comfortable,” she continued. “It’s more of an ‘ease-in’ sort of day and about the social contract we all have with each other, rather than that academic ‘get back to business’ kind of day that it would normally be for us.”
Melvin Torres, a father to an SGTGCA fourth-grader and second-grader, said his youngest son was excited to return to school this morning and see his friends. Like many parents, he is hoping for the best this school year and is hoping a coronavirus vaccine will be available shortly.
“[The school’s] letting the parents know all the securities and all the precautions that they’re doing for the kids to be safe, to just lessen the burden on the parents who are very anxious about the opening,” Torres said. “So I thank them so much for that.”
Meanwhile, Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy in Astoria, which has a school building that lends itself to proper social distancing, is beginning the year not only with new guidelines to follow but a new principal as well — Brother Joseph Rocco, who graduated from the school in 1962.
Brother Joseph explained that constant communication and teamwork have been crucial as he and a committee of parents, teachers, administrators, and academy board members worked together throughout the summer to design a safe reopening plan.
“I got a good night’s sleep [last night], knowing that we had everything in place, with people at the different positions, at different doors, with temperatures being taken,” he said. “I made sure I was in the school building. I wanted to be present to talk to parents who have concerns, but they were just happy that we’re open.”
Today, students in grades 5 through 8 became reacclimated with the school environment and reviewed the new protocols and procedures. Twin eighth-graders Gabrielle and Olivia Mills, who have been students at ICCA since nursery school, said they were happy to be back.
“From the experience so far, I feel safe in school; I have my mask on,” Gabrielle said towards the end of her first half-day. “I can’t wait for next week and the full days. It’ll be fun.”
In the same vein, her sister Olivia is looking forward to celebrating eighth-grade milestones in person with her classmates, including Ring Day, Confirmation, and, of course, graduation.
The majority of the 66 Catholic schools will be operating this fall under Plan A (100% in-person instruction) with the flexibility to move to Plan B (hybrid instruction) if COVID-19 cases arise. Additionally, more than 2,400 students have enrolled in the St. Thomas Aquinas Distance Learning Program, which will begin its orientation next week on Sept. 16.