Teachers, administrators and staff at Saint John's Catholic Prep did their best to make the first day of school feel like normal.
Greetings of “welcome back” and “happy first day” floated through the car drop-off line and the hallways as students arrived dressed in their green and beige uniforms for the start of the school year on Wednesday.
But things were, of course, not fully normal. There were temperature checks, health questionnaires and face masks. The biggest difference was there were simply fewer students.
The Catholic high school located in Buckeystown is operating on a hybrid model for the fall semester. The almost 300 enrolled students have been split into two cohorts and attend school in-person on alternating days Monday through Thursday.
On Fridays, everyone is at home doing independent work or attending their one all-virtual class, and teachers hold office hours.
It was a plan that took months to prepare for, according to SJCP Principal Will Knotek, but the first day seemed to start smoothly despite everyone’s nerves.
“You always have those first day butterflies, and my butterflies, I don’t think have been this much since my first day of teaching when I was a teacher,” Knotek said. “But I am confident in our plan and I am happy to just put months and months of hard work into motion.”
Tyler Grove, a sophomore, arrived at SJCP’s campus Wednesday morning with excitement.
“I’m feeling good, definitely excited to see all my friends again, see the teachers and be in school again. It’s definitely weird but it’s better than being at home and not seeing anything,” he said.
Tyler’s mother, Becky Grove, said she wasn’t concerned about sending him back into the building.
“The school is doing a fabulous job. They were very much in contact with parents over the summer about what they were going to be doing, how they were going to be cleaning the school, keeping the social distancing and all of that,” she said.
In addition to new cleaning measures and health protocols that had to be implemented, the entire academic format and schedule of SJCP had to be reworked in order to fit with the hybrid model, said Jill Seaman, assistant principal for academics at SJCP.
The school now operates on a block schedule with students attending three classes, either in-person or virtually, plus an enrichment and lunch period four days a week. The seventh class is always virtual and will be held on Fridays.
To make sure staff were up to speed with using technology and managing online learning, all teachers participated in an online professional development course from Stony Brook University that focused on blended learning and how to integrate digital tools into education, Seaman said.
Teachers are also focusing on making sure students feel connected to both the school and their peers.
“Teachers have been encouraged to do more community building just because it is an odd year and our kids have been out for so long,” Seaman said.
For freshmen, SJCP held a week-long orientation prior to the first day to make sure they had a smooth transition. The freshmen got to meet their teachers, get a preview of their classes, and participate in a campus retreat.
When prepping for this year’s academics, Seaman said there was concern about some students who may have fallen behind last year.
“Our students really struggled with just the shift to online and not seeing their peers. Typical students who usually do really well sometimes fell off,” Seaman said. “But our teachers have been looking at ways to incorporate review from last year and get everybody on track for this year.”
SJCP did give families and students the option to do the entire semester online, and about 15 students made that choice, Knotek said.
One of those students is junior Alisha Mason.
“I really wanted to go back and see my friends and my teachers, but the more I thought about it, I wanted to feel comfortable and not distracted about someone else being sick...and I just felt that I would be more comfortable at home,” she said.
For her, virtual learning works and the first day went smoothly. She was able to hear and see everything and even interact with a few friends who were in the building.
“I like learning independently. For me, I get as much out of it in the classroom as doing virtual... and I felt pretty confident about my abilities last semester so I thought I would be fine doing it again this semester,” Mason said.
Grace Rish, a senior, is taking advantage of the hybrid model, but is in the cohort that started the first day at home. She also said that technology-wise, it went smoothly.
When asked if she had any concerns about coming back to campus Rish said it’s not so much concern for herself but her family, but added that she is confident the school is taking the right precautions and that her peers will be responsible.
“We know each other so well, so staying six feet apart is not exactly something that comes naturally, it’s not something that we’re used to, so doing that is difficult, but we know that wearing a mask and staying six feet apart is just a small sacrifice so that we can be there in person,” she said.
Knotek said that for him, regardless of what option families chose for this semester, it shows their confidence in the school.
“I think that speaks volumes about several different areas in their confidence in the school that we’re running,” Knotek said. “One, that if they decide to send their children to school that we are going to keep them safe and then for those who have decided to stay home virtual, confidence that we are able to deliver virtual instruction.”
Seaman said more than anything, staff at the school feel blessed that they are able to provide a learning environment that is not possible at many other schools right now.
“All we’ve thought about this summer is what can we do for these kids and how do we get them back in here and have some sense of normalcy this year,” she said. “Even with the masks, to see their eyes smiling...all the hard work has been well worth it.”
For Rish, she is excited to get back into the building on Thursday. Admittedly, this is not how she envisioned her senior year beginning, but she is holding onto optimism and the sense of community at SJCP.
“I think one thing I've learned the last three years is that no matter what, we will always be there for each other...it’s very much we’re in this together more than we’re missing anything,” Rish said. “We’re just going to take what’s been dealt to us and roll with it."