Blustery gusts of chilly air and swirling autumn leaves provided a fitting backdrop for the winds of change moving through St. Maria Goretti School Monday morning.

From a line of cars stretching across the campus, parents dropped off young students sporting new uniforms, backpacks, and face masks as the Long Beach school on Oct. 26 became the first Catholic school in Los Angeles County to reopen for in-person instruction since the coronavirus (COVID-19) shutdown last March.

After scanning their students’ foreheads with digital thermometers, face-masked teachers welcomed them into sanitized classrooms, where desks were spaced 6 feet apart and, per some parents’ request, were outfitted with plexiglass partitions.

It was a historic moment for Maria Goretti’s principal, teachers, and staff, who have been working since last spring on a plan for safe, on-site learning. 

“We have been praying for this day since we closed on March 13,” said Shelly Miller, who teaches one of two combined transitional kindergarten (TK)-kindergarten classes.  

Principal Kathleen Hernandez escorts young students to their classrooms as St. Maria Goretti School in Long Beach reopened Oct. 26. (David Amador Rivera/Angelus News)

“We worked so hard as a team, under great leadership from our principal. We’re feeling blessed.”

Department of Catholic School Superintendent Paul Escala and Auxiliary Bishop Marc Trudeau of the San Pedro Pastoral Region were among the first to arrive, eager to greet students and faculty and show their support for the community. 

“This is extraordinary. I’m really, really proud of what principal Kathleen Hernandez and her team have done so they could open on a day like this,” Escala said.  

Although only partial in scope, the reopening felt like a triumph for parents, teachers, and students alike. 

“The in-person experience is so important to our students’ education and their ability to grow and relate to other people,” Bishop Trudeau told Angelus. “And for Catholic educators, it’s not only the education, but the development of their faith life. It’s essential to have that person-to-person relationship.”  

LA Catholic Schools Superintendent Paul Escala (right) and Bishop Marc Trudeau visit a classroom at St. Maria Goretti School in Long Beach Oct. 26. (David Amador Rivera/Angelus News)

Guidelines set by LA County only allowing in-person instruction for TK through second grade to return to campus meant that about 40 of the school’s 170 enrolled students came back on Monday. 

The TK and kindergarten students will receive full-time in-person instruction, while first- and second-graders will follow a hybrid schedule. Students also have the option of continuing remote learning from home, which began in late August for the new academic year. 

The school’s return to campus was thanks to a streamlined LA County waiver program approved Sept. 29. The program allows public and private schools to apply for waivers for in-person instruction of students in grades TK through second if they meet certain criteria. A maximum of 30 schools will be permitted to open each week.

Because LA County remains in the purple (highest risk) tier, in California’s color-coded system, a fuller reopening of schools is still not allowed until the county’s COVID-19 metrics improve to the less restrictive “red” tier and remains there for at least two weeks, as has been the case in neighboring Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Orange counties.

As of last week, 110 public and private schools in LA County had applied for waivers, 36 of which are Catholic schools. Holy Angels in Arcadia also recently won waiver approval and is preparing to start in-person instruction Nov. 10. 

“This is about opening the door,” Escala said. “We’re not trying to rush everyone back at once, but we needed to start with the youngest first. We need to show the world that in a country that has suffered tremendously from this pandemic, we can do this well. And, we can do this safely.”

Students in the classroom on the first day of in-person instruction for grades TK-2nd at St. Maria Goretti. (David Amador Rivera/Angelus)

Maria Goretti was the first Catholic school to apply once the waiver program was announced. 

“Our parents wanted our school to open and succeed,” said principal Kathleen Hernandez. “We are such a tightknit community, so when the waivers were announced, it was all hands on deck.” 

At Maria Goretti, parents were eager to offer their help, even setting down distance markers across the campus. 

“The parents were phenomenal and so essential in this,” Hernandez said.

As for the teachers, Hernandez said that every single one was in favor of returning to in-person instruction.

Still, Hernandez has no illusions about the complexities of opening a school in a pandemic, and said her staff will need to be “diligent.” 

“We don’t want to be the first to open and then the first to close, so we want to make sure we are making all the right decisions,” she said. 

For example, she and school secretary Angie Hardt recently completed two classes: a COVID-19 Contact Tracing course through John Hopkins University and a COVID-19 Safety Compliance course through the County of Los Angeles Public Health.

St. Maria Goretti School students line up on distance markers outside of the classroom on Monday, Oct. 26. (David Amador Rivera/Angelus News)

For Ramon Casas, this first step in returning to campus is an especially welcome one. Not only does he have five daughters enrolled at the school, but he is the eighth-grade homeroom teacher and also teaches junior high math, religion, and Spanish. On Monday, two of his daughters were among those returning to the classroom. 

“All of my kids are wanting to get on campus so bad, but the three older ones are happy for their two younger sisters,” he said. “They were all up early helping them get ready. It was a great morning.”

Casas has close friendships with many of his fellow parents, and he said the vast majority wanted their kids to get back on campus. 

“We’ve been talking about it, anticipating this day, so at drop off this morning, we said, ‘I don’t know who’s more excited, me or my kids!’ ” he said, laughing. 

Students in the classroom on the first day of in-person instruction for grades TK-2nd at St. Maria Goretti. (David Amador Rivera/Angelus)

Casas said about 15% of Maria Goretti parents are choosing to keep their children home and continue remote learning. 

“There are still some people who aren’t ready, and we understand that,” he said. “But we pray together. We’re trying to do everything the right way. We’ve worked hard to prepare for this.”

That hard work has paid off for students like second-grader Amber Ortiz, who spent the weekend shopping for shoes, socks, and her new uniform after being away from school for nearly eight months. “I was happy this morning and just a little nervous, but not that nervous,” she said. 

Ortiz said she was glad to be back in her classroom and was especially excited to see her friends and her teacher. “We learned some math, and we also did our word of the day,” she said through her yellow facemask. “It feels good to be here, because I feel safe here. I know they’ll take care of us.”