‘Welcome back!’ — Catholic schools open in diocese for first time since mid-March

Levi Bounds and his classmates in Natalie Perry's third grade at Corpus Christi School in Bloomington may be wearing masks and maintaining social distance from one another, but starting the day with prayer is a normal thing for a Catholic school to do. The first day at Corpus Christi was Aug. 19. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

BLOOMINGTON — Adrienne Wilson bounded out the front doors of Corpus Christi School on Aug. 19 and waved to the families in every car lined up in the circular drive with an enthusiastic “Welcome back to school!”

With the exception of a kindergarten student or two, who weren’t sure they wanted to leave Mom and Dad, everyone seemed happy to return.

After getting his temperature taken by interim assistant principal Molly Vogel, Matthew Stanko jumps out of the car to begin kindergarten at Corpus Christi School in Bloomington on Aug. 19. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Wilson, the principal at Corpus Christi, and the teachers haven’t seen the students in person since the middle of March. That’s when Catholic and public schools around Illinois closed to comply with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19.

Even though the first day celebration at Corpus Christi included masks, temperature and wellness checks, and a spritz of hand sanitizer as everyone walked through the door, the children were soon seated in their classrooms and ready to start the day as they always did — with morning announcements and prayer.

It was a scene repeated at the 41 other Catholic elementary schools, high schools and academies of the Diocese of Peoria as the new year began. The first schools were back in session on Aug. 12 and first days will continue through Sept. 2.

Rather than follow a hybrid model, with students attending school on some days and not on others, the Diocesan Plan released by the Office of Catholic Schools calls for children to be enrolled for five days a week, either in person or through remote learning. Principals around the diocese report that while some families have chosen remote learning or home schooling with the option to return to the classroom at some point in the future, the majority have chosen in-person instruction.

NEVER A QUESTION

“It was never a question for us,” said Jessica Butcher, the mother of a sixth-grader and a second-grader at St. Paul School in Macomb. “We knew that the diocese and the school were taking lots of precautions and they were getting good direction. It wasn’t an issue for us.”

She added that her daughters, Cain and Mullen, missed being in the classroom, as well as their friends and teachers.

“They just learn better with the hands-on (instruction) and learning with their peers,” she said.

Theresa and Nathan Young, who also have two children at the Macomb school, agreed.

Huntley Elliott gets some help unpacking her backpack from kindergarten teacher Megan VanVleet on Aug. 17 at Immaculate Conception School in Monmouth. Families came two or three at a time during the early evening so they could still walk their children to their rooms and ease them into their new learning experience. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

“I know that over the summer the administration has been working around the clock to stay up to date on all the protocols that probably change daily,” Theresa Young told The Catholic Post. “They have been updating us on our Facebook pages of all the new requirements. . . . It’s kind of fun to check in and see what will be expected of the children.

She added that knowing principal Laura Cody has been in close contact with the health department, local hospital and medical professionals to make sure all the necessary steps have been followed makes her confident that they will make it as safe as possible for the children.

Mandatory remote learning in the spring went better than expected, Young said, and the staff handled it well.

“If we go that route again I will be happy with that and feel in good hands, as well. But we’re excited to try our best to be in the classroom,” she said.

Immaculate Conception School in Monmouth is back all day, every day, and the parents who came to help their kindergarteners unpack their backpacks on Aug. 17 were happy about that.

“She can’t get the education remotely she can get here,” Kelli Osborn, who teaches pre-school at Immaculate Conception, said of her daughter, Charlotte. “They’ll do what they can to keep her safe.”

“I don’t think kids get the education they deserve at home on the computer,” said Erin Elliott, who was helping Huntley settle into Megan VanVleet’s kindergarten classroom. “We feel very strongly about that at our house.”

RESILIENCE AND FORTITUDE

Throughout the pandemic, the Macomb principal did a video series with little reflections on Facebook. As the first day of school approached, Cody started to show them what things would look like, including the Plexiglas dividers to separate students in the early grades and how the desks would be set up for social distancing for the other grades.

“When you tackle these challenges it makes it so much easier when you’re in a faith community.” — Stacie Gianessi, principal, Holy Family School, Peoria

There have also been sessions on how to wear face masks and how to sanitize their hands upon entering St. Paul School, among other things.

Faith Community Nurse Philomena Padavil takes Sophia Maxwell’s temperature on Aug. 18 at Holy Family School in Peoria. Waiting to record the number is Stacie Gianessi, principal. Students were assigned to school entrances alphabetically so they would be able to maintain a safe distance as they came into school. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

“The parents have been appreciative of it,” Cody said. “Our kids know exactly what to expect.”

Stacie Gianessi, principal at Holy Family School in Peoria, praised her staff for going above and beyond in getting the school ready for classes.

“It is a lot, but for me if I worked in the public school system it would be a lot more overwhelming and stressful,” she said as she and Faith Community Nurse Philomena Padavil took temperatures at one school entrance on Aug. 18. “When you tackle these challenges it makes it so much easier when you’re in a faith community.”

Gianessi said she reminds the staff that “God’s in control, not us. He will guide us and we will follow his guidance and get through it. And I told them we need to focus on the blessings rather than all the hurdles we’re tackling.”

Appropriately enough, the students and staff at Holy Family will be focusing on the virtues of resilience and fortitude this year, she said.

“We’re going to get through it and I keep saying that in six months from now hopefully we look back and say, ‘Do you remember those days when we were walking around in masks and making all these changes?’” said Jim Caparula, the principal at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy in East Moline.

EDITOR’S NOTE: More photos from the first days of school around the diocese have been posted to The Catholic Post’s site on Facebook.

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