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Joy of new school year tempered by virus

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SAN DIEGO — Catholic schools throughout the diocese welcomed students back for a new academic year.

Though public health authorities have loosened many of the restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19, local Catholic school leaders aren’t letting their guard down — especially with the highly contagious Delta variant sweeping the country.

John Galvan, director of the Office for Schools, said the diocese is adopting “the same strategy” of close adherence to state and county health guidance that proved successful last year.

Masks continue to be required indoors, he said, and all school employees must provide proof of vaccination or be tested weekly for COVID-19.

Amidst the challenges of the pandemic, however, there are encouraging signs of growth and vitality at local Catholic schools.

For instance, after years of adding one elementary grade level each year, Mater Dei Catholic is now the first Catholic school in the diocese to offer education from transitional kindergarten through 12th grade. There are 1,043 students at the high school and 446 elementary school students at Mater Dei Juan Diego Academy.

Like many Catholic schools in the diocese, St. Rita’s School is experiencing a bump in enrollment. In late 2021, a campus renovation project will transform a parking lot and playground into the site of a grassy field, basketball court and art studio. Other schools like St. Mary’s in Escondido and St. Columba in San Diego also were blessed with renovations and enhancements this school year.

At Cathedral Catholic High School, the school year was supposed to begin Aug. 16, but was delayed one week after a community member tested positive for COVID-19.

“No one wanted to start the school year this way,” said Dr. Kevin Calkins, president of Cathedral Catholic. “But COVID is still around, and we need to be humble about its impact.”

Speaking to The Southern Cross on Aug. 19, Principal Frank Stingo said Mater Dei Catholic High School had already encountered its first positive COVID case of the new school year. Close contacts were identified and quarantined.

“We keep asking all of our students, and faculty, and everybody — our whole community — to continue to remain vigilant and protect each other,” he said. “We’re in this together.”

Sylvia Benning, principal of St. Charles School in Imperial Beach, is “more apprehensive” about this year because of the combination of the Delta variant’s contagiousness and the loosening of restrictions.

“We’re following almost the exact protocols we did last year, even though the (Centers for Disease Control) has relaxed pretty much every guideline except for masking,” Benning said, noting that students will continue to maintain 6 feet of physical distancing, sit at desks surrounded by transparent plastic screens, and regularly use the more than 20 handwashing stations on campus.

St. Charles’ students returned to school Aug. 18. By Aug. 20, members of the school community already had contracted COVID-19 off-campus and needed to quarantine, said Benning.

“I would anticipate we’re going to deal with it more than we did last year,” she said. “I hope I’m not right.”

At St. Rita’s School, which resumed classes Aug. 23, Principal Gina Olsen said that one of the challenges this year is that many parents are “already a little tired” of COVID protocols, especially those who are fully vaccinated. Her school also is keeping in place last year’s protocols.

Last year, many schools offered a distance-learning option. Though this year represents a return to mostly in-person instruction, schools like St. Katharine Drexel Academy continue to offer distance-learning. All schools will ensure uninterrupted learning for any quarantined students.

For Benning, the sights and sounds of students laughing and playing at recess recently inspired her to make “a prayer of thanksgiving.”

“It’s really important … to their emotional wellbeing that they have this semblance of normalcy in their lives.”

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