A youngster poses for a photo with the American flag in St. Joan of Arc School, Marlton.  Courtesy photo
A youngster poses for a photo with the American flag in St. Joan of Arc School, Marlton. Courtesy photo

During the first weeks of September, eighth-grader Alaina Staab was determined that COVID-19 would not put a damper on her return to school.

“Starting school in the midst of a pandemic is meaningful because we are all trying to make the best of this difficult situation,” said Staab, of St. Joan of Arc School, Marlton. “The start of a new school year has endless possibilities. All of us are starting with a clean slate. We will learn new things, make new friends and see familiar faces.”

“I haven’t been this excited to start a new school year for as long as I can remember,” she continued. “It’s been almost six months since I’ve been in a classroom together with my classmates. Our school theme for the 2020-2021 school year is ‘Live in Hope.’ It is a fitting theme because in order to get through a tough time, you need to be optimistic and hopeful.”

That hopeful outlook was shared by students and teachers across the Diocese of Trenton as courses began – in person, virtually or using a hybrid model – throughout September.

“The students seem to be extremely happy to be back with our school community,” said fifth-grade teacher Merrilee Stemmer of St. Mary Academy, Manahawkin.

Photo Gallery: First Day of School in St. Mary Academy, Manahawkin

To return to in-classroom settings, Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton are following a list of requirements such as the wearing of face masks by students, faculty and visitors; screening processes for fever or other symptoms of students and faculty; adherence to any updates from the New Jersey Department of Health and other agencies based on risks, and contingency plans in the event of a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in a school.

“The administration and faculty at St. Mary Academy worked very hard this summer to put an exceptional plan in place to open for in-person learning and to be prepared to deliver a strong academic program in a safe environment,” Stemmer said. “I am looking forward to teaching in my classroom again with students physically in the room with me.”

Jennifer Bradfield, who is in her sixth year of teaching seventh and eighth grades in St. Joan of Arc School, said she was looking forward to helping students become reacquainted after six months of being away.

“We need to help them rebuild their confidence now that we are back,” she said. “I am excited for the challenges of keeping virtual and in-person students equally engaged and connected.”

She stressed the importance for teachers to build the social and emotional connections among students, too. “This year, our school is providing Chromebooks for each of our fifth- through eighth-grade students. The Chromebooks will provide a uniform learning platform for our students in class and at home. Knowing that each student is working on the same device helps the teacher and student.”

“I absolutely love technology and learning new, fun ways to make a lesson become alive in the classroom,” Bradfield continued. Citing a well-known quote, she continued, “‘The purpose of education is not just to impart knowledge; it’s to instill curiosity,’ and that is exactly what I plan to do this school year.”  

For Nicholas Carrara, an eighth-grader at the Manahawkin school, building social connections is key. Carrara is the new student council president.

“I look forward to leading the student body and helping my class grow as we prepare for high school,” he said. “I'm really happy to back in school to see everyone. And, we came back like we never really left. I thought the first day was going to be different because of how long we were away, but it felt the same, which says a lot about our class and school.”