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We can do this: Tonawanda school meets rising tide of uncharted waters During COVID pandemic

Cardinal O'Hara High School prepares to offer 5-day per week in-school instruction with many helping hands.

TONAWANDA, N.Y. — Many schools are spending these days getting ready to resume classes this fall under new rules meant to help curb the spread of Coronavirus.

On Wednesday, Cardinal O' Hara High School in Tonawanda invited 2 On Your Side inside to give viewers a glimpse at what school will look like, and how it will be different for students who haven't seen the inside of a classroom since March.

"There is just so much to think about and so much to do...it's overwhelming sometimes," Principal Mary Holzerland said.

It's going to be different

Wednesday was orientation day at the school, and incoming students were already being reminded of the protocols regarding social distancing and the wearing of masks, both in the classrooms where desks have been spaced six feet apart and in the hallways, which have been switched to one-way corridors.

Even the lunchroom experience will be different than what returning students will remember 

"In our cafeteria students aren't going to be getting up and getting into a line. They're going to be served their lunches by cafeteria staff," Holzerland said. "So there will be a number of things that aren't exactly the same."

The roles staff members play will also change.

"We all may take on different and additional jobs this year," said Renee Orr, who serves in a fundraising and community relations capacity for the school.

For her, it may involve pitching in to help monitor students as they pass through hallways to make sure they are keeping their distance from each other, or grabbing a cloth and some disinfectant to help teachers sanitize desks and chairs between periods.

These are examples of steps also being taken to comply with state guidelines at other schools beyond O'Hara. However, there is something at this school, which may not occur at many others this fall.

In-person classes, 5 days per week

While O'Hara is a private catholic school, it does not have any exemptions to the guidelines and rules set forth  by the state for schools throughout New York.

"We submitted our plan just as the public schools did," Holzerland said.

One difference from the majority of schools, though, is that O'Hara will offer in-person instruction five days per week.

And while parents may choose to have their children learn remotely, according to Holzerland 92 percent of the students are expected to attend in person.

"Most our students want to be back in class and most of their parents want them there," she said.

Cardinal O'Hara opened nearly 60 years as a school to accommodate more than 1,000 students.

These days, it enrollment stands at about 250, according to Holzerland.

"The sheer size of our building allows us to follow all the safety protocols and provide a safe environment for out student body," she said. 

In other words, what has been a curse for many Catholic schools in recent years of dwindling enrollment may turn out to be a blessing.

"The amount of space we have makes the school conducive to keeping six feet of separation between students," she said.

In addition, Holzerland confirmed that enrollment has risen 10 percent this fall, with more parents seeking to place their children in an academic environment  as close as possible to what existed prior to the pandemic.

While many schools plan to close midweek for one day of deep cleaning, O'Hara won't be doing that either.

"We have parents who have volunteered to come in every night to assist our custodians with the sanitizing. We're very lucky," Orr said.

Teachers getting ready, eager to return

Teachers will also have to accustom themselves to new ways of interacting with students.

They will have to stay at a distance from them, and teach from the front of the room.

It's a big adjustment for, among others, English teacher Lori Panaro.

"I'm so used to walking around to each student, and working in small groups with them. We have to stay six feet apart, I can't even walk over and stand next to them this year," she said, with a hint of disappointment in her voice.

However, if Mrs. Panaro's experience as a teacher has taught her one thing, it is that kids are resilient and adaptable to change.

"They will be fine," she said.

And so will she, she says, when she can see them once again.

"Oh, I can't  wait. I miss my students. ... I really do."

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