GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Wednesday is the first day of school for most students who attend Diocese of Grand Rapids Catholic Schools.

“It feels a lot different. It was kinds of a mixed bag of emotions this morning,” Sarah Tupper, a parent of Saint Paul the Apostle, said on Wednesday.

She and other Saint Paul the Apostle families were offered two options: distanced learning or in-person. 

Over 95% of the parents chose the in-person option.

“We have a lot of confidence in our teacher and our administration here,” Tupper said.

The school’s been planning for both options in the five months since COVID-19 shut down schools and just about everything else in the state of Michigan.

With the help of public health officials, the diocese wrote a framework for all of its 26 elementary and five high schools to follow.  

Each school was able to add to that plan, depending on their individual needs.

The result includes plexiglass sheets and shower curtains to provide social distancing in the classrooms.

In addition to those precautions:

  • Lunches room tables are set up to separate students.
  • COVID-19 avoidance practices are promoted outside of classrooms.
  • The playground is lined with the kind of tape that’s often seen at crime scenes.
  • All students 5th grade through 8th must wear masks except when eating lunch.
  • All staff and students will wear face masks in hallways and common areas.

Buses will be run at half capacity and masks are required for riders. Superintendent Dave Faber told News 8 that he expects most parents to drive their children to school themselves.

“I am completely comfortable with my son coming to school here,” said Michael Vandyke, a teacher at West Catholic High School and parent of a student in attendance. “It’s a safe place as long as we do the procedures and routines that protect us. Obviously wash your hands, hand sanitizer when you leave rooms, keep your spacing and wear your mask. We can run schools this way. I know we can.”

But Principal Michelle Morrow says the biggest emphasis is on keeping coronavirus out of the school to begin with.

Each morning, students and staff complete a health self-assessment and email it to the school.

The assessment is designed to send out red flags if COVID-19 symptoms show up in a student or faculty member and is available to local public health officials for contact tracing. If a student does test positive, it will likely result in a group of students needing to attend class remotely for two weeks.

“Our students were also met at the door by their teachers, so friendly face, friendly eyes that they got to see. And those teachers did secondary check of temperatures,” Morrow said.

That secondary check helped identify one student Wednesday morning with symptoms, and helped keep him away from others.

“We were able to, at the door, bring them in to our quarantine room and wait for the parents and get the proper assessment from health care officials,” Morrow said.

Masks are mandatory for older students and are encouraged for younger ones, but nothing fancy.

“We didn’t want masks to become the new fashion trend,” Morrow said. “We know that if kids are drawn to masks and if they’re paying attention to their mask, they’re not paying attention to the learning.”

And while a lot of adults argue over masks, Morrow says they’re using them as a teaching tool.

“They respond so well. So, when it comes to mask, it’s not put your mask on because I say so — It’s what’s the point of it? Why are we doing this?” Morrow said.

Another advantage is that unlike public schools, Catholic and other religious-based school are able to bring God into the conversation.

“When we talked about the sacrifices that Jesus had made for us, we can correlate that to the sacrifices that we’re making right now for the safety of all of our students,” Morrow said.