As she did on the first day of classes a year ago, Rome Catholic School (RCS) Principal Nancy Wilson stood just outside an entrance to the 800 Cypress St. building around 7:30 this morning, greeting arriving students in grades K-6.
But differences due to the ever-present impacts of COVID-19 were immediately evident.
Asking some students their names, Wilson then recognized them and exclaimed "I've known you guys a long time," while observing it was harder to tell "with masks on."
Moments later, Wilson introduced herself to a new student and briefly lifted her own mask so the student could "see my face." She repeated that step a few times, saying to a couple of students, "Hi, guys. Remember me?" while quickly lifting her mask.
Upon entering, students were directed to a spot just inside the building where their temperatures were checked before they continued further into the school. For parents who were dropping off students and bringing them to the entrance, Wilson asked parents to briefly wait and make sure their children had gone past the temperature checkpoint before the parents left.
RCS launched the 2020-21 academic year today with 48 K-6 students for in-person instruction five full days per week, plus three K-6 students who opted for remote learning. The school closed in mid-March due to COVID-19, with remote instructional efforts continuing to the end of 2019-20 academic year in June.
In addition to K-6, RCS has pre-K students through the Rome school district who are beginning the new academic year on an all-remote basis; RCS had about 138 pre-K students in the 2019-20 year, and Wilson said the total for this year is still being determined.
The Rome district and its more than 5,000 students overall in pre-K to grade 12 began the new academic year today with remote instruction for general education, with plans to continue in that mode for at least six weeks; the district will evaluate overall conditions and guidelines relating to COVID-19, and general education students are scheduled to begin returning for in-person instruction on Oct. 26 pending that evaluation.
For RCS, meanwhile, it is a "luxury" to have an enrollment and building size that allow a full-in person opening for grades K-6, so that "the guidelines are feasible for us," Wilson commented. Regarding how the opening went this morning overall, "I feel really good about it," she said.
Also part of the first day of school at RCS:
• While waiting at the entrance, sixth-grader Connor Earl said it was "pretty good" to be returning to the school for the first time since March. He was both "excited" and "kind of nervous," and was looking forward to seeing his new teachers. He also felt good about seeing his friends again.
His father, Jason Earl, said he too was excited for Connor to be coming back, adding of students' remote learning that "the online stuff is hard...." for them.
• Parent Scott Keane, while waiting with his first-grade daughter Elena and kindergartner son Daniel who are both returning RCS students, said "I'm just glad they can attend school." It would have been "heartbreaking" to have had to tell his children they would be schooling "online again," he remarked.
Keane said he knows the school staff "worked very hard" in preparing for the in-person opening. He added he was grateful for their efforts and for the Catholic Diocese in "putting this together."
• Among parents of new RCS students were William and Michelle Niles, whose daughter Sofia is a first-grader, and Amanda Rutherford, whose son Eli is in sixth grade.
Michelle Niles said her daughter had been at Stokes Elementary School, adding "it's a great school" but also commenting "we think she'll thrive in in-person" schooling. She also said they liked the smaller class sizes.
Rutherford similarly said she wanted her son to attend school in-person, feeling the in-person instruction will be a "lot better for him." She said "I think it's great they're...in school" at RCS, adding of COVID-19 that she feels there are "ways to work around it" for students and "keep them safe" with various steps such as consistent use of masks and hand sanitizer.
• Speaking to nine students in her class of third-and fourth-graders at socially distanced desks around 8 a.m., teacher Devyn Fisher explained overall procedures including some relating to COVID-19 such as not sharing books and using lanyards to hook onto their masks; if students take off masks, the lanyards will keep them from hitting the floor.
"It's going to take some getting used to this," Fisher told the class while discussing procedures. But she added they would be OK and would "get used to it." She also pointed out to students, "at least we're in school...we're very lucky....," while adding "a lot of schools are doing remote learning."
Fisher paused a short time later to connect onto her computer with two students in the class who opted for learning remotely. She said to one of the online students, "welcome to the first day of school...."
• Speaking on the public-address system shortly after 8 a.m. for the morning prayer and announcements, Wilson told students that normally they would "go downstairs to the gym" for the morning prayer but "we can't do that just yet."
Wilson asked students "are you happy to be here together?," adding "I certainly am." After leading the prayer, she told them "I hope everybody has a wonderful day" and said she would be "up in a few minutes to visit everyone's classrooms."
RCS dismisses at 2:25 p.m.