The start of the 2020-21 school year at St. Mary’s School in Rockville, Maryland was unlike any experienced by Debra Eisel, now in her 10th year as the school’s principal.

After the closing of Catholic school campuses in the spring due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and a quick transition to distance learning, and then after months of careful planning, teachers’ training in digital platforms and online meetings with parents over the summer, their school building reopened for classes for its students on the day after Labor Day, with extensive safety measures in place, including mandatory face mask wearing, temperature checks and health screening questions upon arrival, and social distancing reminders throughout the school.

“Tuesday it felt like everything came back together. It was such a relief to have everyone back in school, to have our in-person and virtual learners together again with their teachers,” she said.

As she walked through the school’s hallways and looked in classrooms, she was inspired by how teachers were engaging the students and their classmates joining them virtually. Teachers are using cameras on their laptops and webcams in their classrooms to connect with their virtual learners.

And what Eisel saw gave her hope for the new school year.

“To see our kids here in school with smiles on their faces, even behind masks – I am hopeful,” she said in an interview. “…It’s so great to have the kids in the building. It made the work we did in the summer worth it.”

St. Mary’s School, founded in 1951, marks its 70th anniversary next year. In 2011, St. Mary’s was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. This school year at St. Mary’s, about 75 percent of the 173 pre-kindergarten through eighth graders are attending classes in person, with the remaining 25 percent taking virtual classes through the school.

“The whole plan for opening school again had to prioritize health and safety while we figured out a blended learning model that would work for our whole school,” the principal said.

Eisel added that parents’ “job of being our partners has never been as important as it is now. Students who are virtual learners need assistance… Parents are working right alongside us to make this successful.”

Caterina Watson, the president of St. Mary’s Home and School Association whose daughters Emma and Ava are in the fifth and eighth grade there, noted what it meant to families to have the school reopen. 

“It was huge. These kids have been home for six months. They miss their friends, and they miss their teachers, and the miss the normalcy of going to school,” she said, adding that the school’s staff and teachers “went to great lengths to be able to reopen safely.”

Other safety measures at St. Mary’s can be seen in each classroom, where desks are placed six feet apart. During the day, children are given mask breaks outdoors, while maintaining social distances from each other on the playground, and they’ve also been given more recess time.

“They’ve been champs,” the principal said, praising how the students have adapted to the safety measures. She likewise praised the dedication and hard work of St. Mary’s teachers, who researched best practices and took training for digital learning, and helped plan for the safe reopening, which includes thorough cleaning and disinfecting in the school building each day, hand sanitizer throughout the school and portable sinks for the preschoolers to use before they enter their classrooms.

Danica Dustin, a second grader at St. Mary's School in Rockville, colors a page celebrating the beginning of school there. (Photo courtesy of St. Mary's School)

Msgr. Robert Amey, St. Mary’s pastor, likewise praised the cooperative effort that went into the school’s reopening.

“It’s a great achievement that the school board and school faculty have been able to work through the restrictions and obstacles of the pandemic and been able to produce the quality Catholic education that’s been our tradition,” he said, adding, “I think our children would be shortchanged if we didn’t make every attempt to safely provide for their academic and spiritual development.”

Mary Glynn, who teaches third grade at St. Mary’s School, said that as she is teaching her in-person and on-line students at the same time, she tries to meet the needs of each student, and involve them in discussions and have them see each other’s math problems and drawings.

“They’re excited to learn multiplication and cursive. The content is still the same, the curriculum is the same, but it’s a new way of teaching and presenting it in an engaging way for all of the students,” she said.

Glynn said the Catholic education throughout the school day at St. Mary’s, and what children learn by praying together every morning and afternoon and by praying for those who are sick and their families, can help give them the grace to face this challenging time, “knowing we’ll get through it.”

“Especially during this pandemic, we’re able to show the children what it really means to be Catholic,” she said.

Beth Rodda, a sixth grade teacher at St. Mary’s, said she has been challenged “to really push myself as an educator. I spent a lot of time this summer looking into different ways to teach math and science.”

One thing that hasn’t changed at the school, she said, is “that St. Mary’s is a wonderful faith-filled community… Our Catholic education is giving the students a strong foundation by encouraging them to live Christ’s message.”

Eisel said she has witnessed the difference that Catholic schools make.

“Catholic elementary schools give our children a solid foundation for the rest of their lives. It forms them in their faith,” and helps them to be future leaders in their community, she said.

Like St. Mary’s principal, the parish’s pastor is hopeful for the future, as the school continues providing a Catholic education to children in this challenging time.

“I know by the grace of God we can overcome anything,” he said. “We are already taking necessary measures to be safe, and it’s working.”