The first big yellow school buses rolled up at 8 a.m., and a handful of students stepped out into the September sunshine.
The school doors swung open, and one by one, a line of kids entered Nativity of Our Lord School in Warminster, each child’s hands reaching out automatically for the first squeeze of hand sanitizer of the day. The students had been spread out on the bus, and were careful not to get too close to one another on the way in. They all wore masks.
Principal Kyle McDonough spent his summer drawing up plans, measuring rooms, and putting precautions in place to prepare to open the 461-student school. Most surrounding districts chose to open the year virtually, but Nativity parents overwhelmingly wanted in-person instruction, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia offered a playbook, and McDonough has luxuries unavailable to public schools, including the ability to limit admissions.
Still, the principal was worried: With barriers separating desks, mandatory masks or face shields, no singing, no assemblies or field trips, would it feel like school?
“I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “The days feel normal.”
No doubt, though: In-person school looks different in the COVID-19 era. Preschoolers can’t share crayons. Lunch happens in the classroom. Children mostly stay in a single space, with art and music teachers hauling materials from room to room. Teachers can’t send children to the office to relay messages or drop off forms. Parents aren’t allowed inside at all, but a cleaner with a backpack full of sanitizer is a constant presence, wiping frequently touched surfaces and spraying rooms between uses.
Inside Amanda Grill’s kindergarten class on Wednesday, 17 children enthusiastically dipped sponges into pools of green paint as art teacher Melanie Branchide explained their project for the day, painting leaves onto a construction paper apple tree. Each student had their own plate of paint, and they sat at individual desks or tables with more space than usual between chairs. They even used clothespins to pick up their sponges.
“Ben, you’re so artistic!” Branchide said, beaming at one boy absorbed in his artwork.
No one fusses about masks, or the plastic dividers that go up when students eat snacks or lunch, said Grill, the classroom teacher.
“My kids have been wonderful,” she said. “They’re just glad to have a schedule."
Nativity, like the vast majority of schools in the region, sent students home last school year on March 12, and no one returned. After a spring spent teaching remotely, with her two boys also learning virtually and her husband also working from home, Grill was more than ready to return in the fall, she said.
The school offers a fully virtual option for families uncomfortable with in-person instruction, but only about 20 have opted in. Nativity chose not to offer virtual preschool or kindergarten.
“It’s hard to hold the kids' attention for more than 20 minutes,” Grill said. “In person is so much better for them."
His teachers have stepped up, said McDonough. They must pick up extra jobs like supervising lunch and recess, because the volunteers who usually help out aren’t permitted to do so, for safety’s sake.
It’s a year unlike any she’s seen in 30-plus years at Nativity, said math teacher Dawn Lally.
“You’re on 24/7,” Lally said. “We have to help each other, because we have so little downtime.”
McDonough receives calls and emails every day from public school parents hoping to transfer their children immediately, but he capped enrollment in August, knowing families choose Nativity in part because of its small size. He knows his ability to have all students present in the building, full-time, is one not open to many school leaders right now.
“I do not envy a giant school district like Council Rock, or Central Bucks,” said McDonough.
Those public school districts must also give a seat at the reopening planning table to teachers unions, which McDonough does not need to cope with; Catholic school teachers at parish schools like Nativity are not unionized.
Districts around the region are in the midst of wrestling with reopening plans, against a complicated backdrop: Guidance from experts including the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab and Montgomery County commissioner Val Arkoosh, a physician and public health expert, suggests schools now have a window to bring children back into buildings soon. Early evidence shows low rates of transmission inside K-12 schools where children have returned to face-to-face instruction, and pressure on local schools to reopen is intense. But the realities of an unknown winter ahead, teacher concerns, and financial realities remain.
Nativity, a tan brick, two-story building, was constructed in 1965, when Catholic school classes were much larger, sometimes 40 or more students. McDonough felt he could keep students safe if classes were limited to 21 children. Still, he’s using every square inch of space at the school, and had to remove most furniture besides student and staff desks to allow for social distancing. Two storage pods sit in the schoolyard to hold items removed from classrooms.
There are 26 new students in first through eighth grades this year. Normally, there are about five.
It is expensive to run school during a pandemic; McDonough estimates he has spent a whopping $100,000 extra so far this year on everything from upgraded bandwidth to touchless water filling stations. But Nativity has steady enrollment, a supportive parent base, and a parish committed to keeping students and staff safe, despite the extra cost, McDonough said.
“When you need cash on hand to pay for pod storage every month and to buy barriers, you have to find ways to make it work,” he said. “We took a hit, but we’ll be OK long-term. We’re fortunate enough that we can do it — I know that other schools can’t.”
Pandemic education requires creativity, whether school is virtual or in person. At Nativity, that means holding Mass on the blacktop. Or, when weather permits, gym teacher Terrance Oliver moving lessons outside, forgoing basketball for makeshift Frisbee golf, with each student tossing their personal Frisbee at their personal hula hoop.
"Active position, slight bend in the knees, keep your arms strong,” Oliver told a class of middle schoolers, demonstrating the proper form. “If you have 8 to 10 feet apart from your neighbor, you can drop your mask. Stay one parking space away from the next hula hoop.”
Loralai Schubert is grateful her eighth grade year is happening in person, even with the changes, she said.
“At first, it was a little hard to get used to everything that was different,” said Schubert. “But I was very excited to come back, to actually see my teachers. It’s just easier to learn — you take in a lot more stuff.”
In Jeanne Koritko’s Warminster neighborhood, her three girls are some of the only children attending school in person; most of her neighbors' children attend public schools and are not yet back to the classroom face-to-face.
“I’m hearing from people saying, ‘How are you guys doing it?’ Their kids are struggling virtually,” she said.
Koritko spent her summer praying her girls, second, sixth, and eighth graders, could return to school safely. She has not been disappointed, she said.
“My daughter said, ‘I would rather wear a mask and see my friends even if I have to stay in a little square at my desk,’ ” said Koritko.