A socially-distanced English class taught by teacher Rachel Polzer at Blanchet Catholic School on Thursday, Jan. 28. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Freshmen now eat lunch in the school gym. Larger classes are held in the lunchroom so desks can be spread further apart. And the office manager’s desk is behind a sheet of plastic.

But the health precautions on campus did little to dampen the spirits of the high school students who are back in classes at Blanchet Catholic School.

“Don’t forget to sanitize and scan that beautiful face!” Principal Robin Smith reminded students as they filed in the front door Thursday morning.

The school is one of several private schools in Salem that have resumed in-person classes following Gov. Kate Brown’s Dec. 23 decision to let local school boards and administrators decide whether to reopen.

Previously, Oregon had tied school reopening to the number of new Covid cases in the surrounding county or community in most cases, leaving Salem-area schools shuttered except for brief in-person activities for struggling students.

Most of Oregon’s largest public school districts, including Salem-Keizer, remain closed. District leaders have said they plan to return kindergarten and first grade students to classrooms in early March, but face logistical challenges, including coordinating bus routes at lower capacity and reconfiguring classrooms to provide enough space between students.

Blanchet, which has about 125 middle school students and 180 high school students, was better equipped to make the switch quickly, president Bob Weber said. The school also has more space to work with, making it easier to move larger classes into gyms or lunchrooms when needed.

Health regulations have forced some changes on campus. Students wear masks during class, and each grade has its own designated space for lunch and breaks between classes - no mingling between grades allowed.

No student is required to attend class in person, and some have opted to stay home over health concerns. Teachers have Zoom open in class, allowing those students to participate with their in-person classmates.

“They’ve been these rockstars that have made it work,” Weber said of the school’s teachers.

The school’s dress code has been another casualty. Sweatpants are now allowed on days when students have gym class to minimize use of the locker rooms.

For students who have been attending school at home in pajamas for months, “it’s actually a nice transition,” Weber said.

This week was the first back on campus for students and the start of the school’s second semester.

“Having them back in the building was delightful,” said Corina Moore, the middle school vice principal, who also teaches English.

For some, like freshman Emily Barnett, 15, it was their first time seeing many of their classmates in person. 

“Everyone was really helpful with finding classes and stuff,” she said.

Barnett said she’s been fortunate to have her own room to attend school online, but still struggles at times to stay on task.

“I don’t focus as well,” she said. “Being in person makes that easier.”

Senior Julissa Rocha Ibarra, 17, said she’d worried about having to finish high school online.

“It’s really easy to disconnect from people and be in not the best state of mind,” she said. “I was hoping that we’d be able to come back.”

For now, classes are half online and half in person. Blanchet’s middle school students are on campus Mondays and Tuesdays, and high schoolers on Wednesday and Thursdays.

Weber said that’s temporary to make sure the school’s safety protocols are working well to prevent Covid from spreading on campus. 

Teachers and school employees who wanted a vaccine have received a first dose, Weber said.

“Once our teachers are vaccinated, I think we’ll feel a little better” about bringing the full school back, Weber said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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