Back to School – COVID Style

2020 began like any other year.  But as we approached the ides of March, it was clear that this year would actually be like none other these generations had known.  As the shut downs and cancellations gave way to dramatic alterations in everyday life, each morning brought a promise that the pandemic, and the changes that came with it, were taking the long course.

As we all settled into our new, ever evolving “normal”, and summer beckoned a second wave of the pandemic, Amy and I began to wonder what the school landscape would look like in the fall.  Would our six school school-aged kids, including our oldest two who were set to begin their freshman year at Mater Dei, find themselves seated at desks with peers or once again scattered on the main floor of our house completing virtual assignments?  What would become of the fall sports’ scene, or other extra-curricular activities that had become part of the mainstay of a school year?  Just how quickly would COVID-19 spread through the hallways and classrooms, and what would the response be at our schools, and across the community as a whole?

Like the rest of our fellow parents, the days leading up to the school year were filled with questions and unease.  Braced for all sorts of possibilities, though, we woke up on a bright, clear August morning with the first day of school a little over an hour and a half away.  Midst all of the uncertainty and anxiety, something beautiful happened.  Our kids got up, dressed, ate breakfast, and excitedly readied themselves to walk through the front doors of a place they hadn’t seen for almost five whole months. 

In spite of all the reasons that this day might not have happened, I found myself driving Zach and Emma to their first day of school.  As we made our way to Mater Dei, I suddenly realized that any concern that I had felt had given way to sheer happiness and gratitude.  Although not privy to all the details, I realized that in some ways, through thousands of hours of effort, it had been no minor miracle that the three of us were sharing in this memorable moment in the midst of what was undoubtedly an unforgettable year.  Suddenly, in the midst of reflecting on all of this, I realized that our kids were minutes away from being the fourth generation of Schroeders to attend Mater Dei.  Their great grandmother, Janie (Scheller) Schroeder had graduated in 1950 as part of the inaugural class.  Twenty-one years later, their grandfather would say his last goodbyes as a departing senior.  Then I, in 1995 and Amy, in 1996, would celebrate a final Baccalaureate Mass as part of the tradition by which all graduates move onto the next phase of their lives.  As the oldest of the 4th generation, Zach and Emma would soon find themselves entering the hallowed hallways of Mater Dei, part of the class of 2024.

As we walked together to the bottom of the teardrop, and I said goodbye to them and watched them walk inside, I couldn’t help but reflect on the conversations that Amy and I had leading up to this day.  Like all parents seeing their oldest kids go to high school, there was a sense of sentimentality, nervousness, and excitement for what had been, and what would come.  But given the context of 2020, I was particularly struck by the gifts that I and so many others had been given through our Catholic education, and all the people that had dedicated themselves to our education and our lives through challenging circumstances, including wars, recessions, political upheaval, and pestilence.  For a few minutes, standing there watching the first day unfold, it struck me that for over 70 years, the Mater Dei community had stood for a multitude of core values, not the least of which was determination, gratefulness, and a resilient, “can do” spirit no matter what obstacles might lie in the way. 

The 2020-2021 academic year had officially begun.  Although none of us had any idea of what to expect (despite what would later be a remarkably successful first quarter), standing there beneath the American flag billowing in the breeze, tombstones of generations passed on, and across from the timeless statue of our patroness of Mater Dei herself, I was reminded that even in the most challenging times, life does carry on.  A new generation of students, this year with masks in tow, had begun to fill the MD hallways, waiting for the bells to ring.  No matter what would come, as other parents across the country wondered when their kids would see the inside of school again, we were part of the lucky ones.   School had begun. 

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