As students at Aquinas and St. Mary's Catholic Schools head back to class for the second half of the 2020-2021 school year, there seems to be a light of sunshine at the end of the COVID-19-shaped tunnel.
It's easier ending the second semester, St. Mary's School Principal Sarah Zook said, because the weather will be getting warmer and the days longer.
"It's harder heading into winter," Zook said.
Despite that, Aquinas and St. Mary's Chief Administrative Officer Fr. Sean Timmerman said the first semester was a relative success.
Keeping things as normal as possible throughout COVID-19 was a definite win, Timmerman said.
Classes were held in-person all semester and sports and most other extracurricular activities still took place.
Timmerman said that success was thanks to the efforts of students and staff.
"Everybody has worked really hard to make sure that we could have classes in person," Timmerman said.
Maintaining in-person learning was, Timmerman said, among the school system's top priorities.
"It's taken a lot of extra work but I think everybody appreciates the fact that we're in the school building and doing what we can to keep people healthy and safe," Timmerman said.
Zook said the policies and procedures for dealing with COVID-19 have worked well.
"We've just not had transmission among kids, and we've not had a lot of staff out," Zook said.
Zook noted it was a huge relief to have kids back in the building in the fall after in-person learning ended abruptly in March.
"They got right back up to speed and we've had limited academic loss," Zook said. "You can just tell the students were so excited to come back. The teachers missed them. The kids missed being at school, missed their friends, missed their teachers."
It wasn't all sunshine that first semester, though.
"There were some things that were out of our control and we lost some activities just due to other schools or things got canceled by the state or district," Timmerman said.
With the barriers posed by masks and social distancing, Zook said St. Mary's has placed extra emphasis on the importance of social and emotional learning by implementing a new program this year.
"It's a difficult time anyway, you see those starting to decline in kids, but then you put a pandemic on top of it. It was critical this year to add that piece," Zook said.
Through the social and emotional learning program, Zook said staff and students discuss how to deal with emotional struggles or how to be better friends and how they can look to the saints for guidance.
COVID-19 precautions have also prevented Aquinas from having Mass in its chapel.
"We've had to spread out and have Mass in the gym. And a gym is just not the same. Being in a chapel is much more intimate and prayerful. But, I feel bad for our kids that they've not been able to experience the holy Mass inside our holy chapel," Timmerman said.
Faith has been more important than ever this school year, Timmerman added.
"We realize that we live our lives by faith and not by fear. There's a lot of fear in the world right now with COVID," Timmerman said. "We always have to remember that we're in God's hands and that our prayers and our perseverance will get us through this."