By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator  

With masked smiles, students showed up eager to learn, happy to see their peers and prepared to face challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic in order to make a not-so-traditional school year successful.  

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Students at Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Baton Rouge wear masks and social distance in class on the first day of school. Photo by Wendy Milam | Sacred Heart of Jesus School 


Their cooperation has helped the school year kick off smoothly, according to administrators and teachers in the Diocese of Baton Rouge.  

St. Michael the Archangel Regional High School in Baton Rouge opened its door Aug. 6 with a staggered schedule, with half of the class levels coming to campus one day and half the next, according to principal Ellen Lee. Lee said “very few” students chose to take classes online.  

St. Michael concluded its first full week with the entire student body coming on campus. Some seniors donned crowns to celebrate their “last first day of high school.”  

As a sign 2020-21 “is not going to be an ordinary senior year” and things are going to have be done differently, the SMHS seniors were given their rings and pins that they normally would have received at the end of the past school year.  

The students were instructed on social distancing, and safety protocols and tweaks were made where needed, Lee said. She noted the teachers have been supportive of the changes.  

“It was a learning process as they were learning the safety protocols for the safety of the students,” said Lee, who added parents have been supportive as well.  

The biggest challenge for the students is social distancing, according to Lee.  

“The kids missed each other and they wanted to get close together in class. But once we were done with the safety training, they were very cooperative,” Lee said. 

SMHS social studies teacher Kegan Keller agreed.  

“Though discomfort is inevitable, they have abided by the school’s established precautions with a great attitude,” he said. “It has been an adjustment, especially walking the hallways, but when reminded to socially distance themselves, they respond well.” 

The athletic teams have been conditioning and practicing, following all safety and social distancing protocols. While hoping that Phase 3 of reopening will be in place by the time fall athletic competitions and club activities traditionally are “in full swing,” Lee emphasized SMHS will follow state guidelines as to exactly when they will resume.  

The most important thing now is that the students are able to interact with one another again, she noted.  

“They are so glad to be back,” Lee said. “They need it for their own psychological growth and mental health.”  

At St. Theresa Middle School in Gonzales, the students were excited to walk into the classroom the first day and see each other and are embracing the changes.  

“It went much better than I thought it would,” said Beth Sinanan, fourth-grade science teacher.  “I anticipated that the kids would not want to keep their masks on … but they are so happy to be here.”  

The children wear masks all day, except when eating lunch. If needed, students are allowed to take a “mask break” and briefly lower their masks, but they never remove their masks.   

They have been cooperative, said Sinanan, who wears a mask all day herself.  

“Even though you cannot see their smiles, you know they are there,” said Sinanan.  

The children have been spreading apart when gathering and walking together. The students do not move around a lot in the classroom, but they can do things like raise their arms and stretch their legs out at their desk. Students are also assigned to the same desk all day.  

The class levels take turns attending the weekly school Masses in person, allowing each level to do so once a month at St. Theresa. Plans are to livestream the Mass for the rest of the student body.  

Like Sinanan, Keller does not mind the sacrifices that teachers are being required to make.  

“Teaching with a mask is a minor inconvenience,” he said. “Pre COVID, I enjoyed walking around and interacting with the students which is not possible with the safety measures put in place. I do not mind because the safety of our students is most important, even if there are some sacrifices involved in our teaching methods. Adapt and overcome.” 

Teachers are also finding teachable moments from the pandemic.  

“This year’s election and controversy over the pandemic is helping my lesson plans write themselves,” said Keller “This is one of the most significant events to happen in my students’ lifetime. I teach mostly freshman and as I found out this week many of them were not alive when Hurricane Katrina occurred in 2005.”  

He said almost every aspect of daily life has been altered in some way and some of those aspects may never go back to normal.  

“You never know when the next history making event will occur and how it will affect your life, not only in the moment, but the years that follow,” Keller said.