By Jenelyn Russo     10/12/2020

On Sept. 8, Catholic elementary schools within the Diocese of Orange opened their campus doors for the 2020-2021 school year. Having secured waiver approval from the Orange County Health Care Agency, the schools were allowed to open for in-person instruction for grades TK-6th.  

Additionally, on Sept. 22 those same elementary campuses welcomed back their 7th and 8th graders, and their high school counterparts opened their doors as well for smaller cohorts of students. 

In a year that has been anything but typical, teachers, administrators and staff have been challenged to become more flexible and adaptable than ever before, oftentimes learning new technologies and expanding their roles to ensure a safe and productive learning environment. 

After the completion of the first week of school, Orange County Catholic school elementary teachers and principals were given the opportunity to share some thoughts on their return to campus and offer some insight as to lessons learned so far. 

The hope of the survey was to take the collective wisdom of those who are experiencing these unprecedented challenges and provide guidance and support across the diocese. 

“When we all come together with thoughts, ideas and reflections, that can enhance our whole system of schools,” says Mike Schabert, associate superintendent of Catholic Schools Marketing and Enrollment. “Our schools recognize that we are stronger together.” 

Answers to questions such as, “One thing I know now that I wish I had known before…” and, “After the first week, I am excited about…” ranged from technology issues and anxiety to resiliency and grace. 

St. Irenaeus Parish School Principal Monica Hayden’s responses included her discovery of new meanings for the word “responsibility,” as managing the difficulties of education amid Covid has expanded her role. 

“I knew that I would feel responsible, but I think that I’m learning how much responsibility I have,” says Hayden, “but also that there are others there to help me with that responsibility.” 

Hayden is encouraged by the joy she sees on the students’ faces in their return to in-person instruction, especially the school’s 7th and 8th graders, who are the heart of the St. Irenaeus campus. 

“The kids are so happy to be here,” says Hayden. “I think sometimes we over-think things, but the bottom line is they’re healthy, they’re safe, they’re protected as best we can and they’re learning.” 

St. Irenaeus is currently operating with approximately two-thirds of their student body on campus and one-third of students who have chosen to remain in distance learning for now. As such, teachers are working hard to provide the same robust learning environment for all children, whether learning at school or from home. 

Kindergarten teacher Elisa Liljeberg is facing several new logistics such as amplifying her voice through a mask, finding new ways to introduce songs and providing each child their own personal space in the classroom. Researching those who teach from virtual learning platforms full time alongside joining parent Facebook groups are just a few of the ways Liljeberg is adjusting her teaching style to meet the children’s needs. 

“We want to give them the essence of kindergarten,” says Liljeberg. “We just have to do it differently, and we have to adapt.” 

But above all, the 17-year teaching veteran reflected in her survey answers that maintaining a growth mindset and a positive internal voice are key. 

“The adversity we have already faced has made us feel like a team so quickly, faster than any other year,” says Liljeberg. “Without this struggle, we would not know how truly strong we are and how blessed we are to have each other.”