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Peninsula Catholic High School, ready to offer students in-person instruction

While many schools plan to have students spend the first nine weeks of the new school year learning online, Peninsula Catholic High is offering in-person classes.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — As many schools turn to online learning for the start of the next school year, some others are offering in-person instruction instead.

One of them is Peninsula Catholic High School, where students have the option to continue classes virtually or return to in-person learning, this fall.

As of right now, administrators said they expect 77 percent of students plan to come back in person. So, the school is taking precautions to protect everyone in the classrooms and halls.

From the start, those who choose to come back in-person must go through a temperature check and answer questions surrounding COVID-19 related symptoms.

If you pass those, you've gone through one of the first health safety measures the school has put in place.

Principal Jenny Franklin said you'll run into more physical distancing from the start.

"Students will come in three different entrances, to alleviate congestion as everybody comes in, in the morning,” said Franklin.

Also, Franklin said that congestion won't be as bad for the first few days of school, because students will not all return at the exact same time and that’s intentional.

"We expect especially at first coming in, they're going to be so excited to see each other, it's going to be hard,” said Franklin.

Instead, they're going to have 8th and 9th graders start one day, then the other students return days after.

Once inside the school, students will go directly to their "home-room" classes, where they have assigned seats, for a reason.

"Should we ever have to do any contact tracing, we will know where our students are, where they've been, who they've been sitting by,” said Franklin.

Franklin said they have about 250 students enrolled this year, which is why they have markers on the ground, at places like the drinking fountains and one-way arrows on the staircases and in hallways where students will walk in one direction.

"Just to remind students that they need to be socially safe,” said Franklin.

On the walls, you’ll see signs asking everyone without a medical exemption, to wear a facemask.

It's a physically distanced lunchtime too. Students will pre-order meals from the cafeteria and someone will deliver the food to the classrooms, where students will eat it.

It's a different type of school year, with new health safety precautions in the halls and even more in the classrooms.

Each room has fewer desks spaced six feet apart.

PCH teacher Heather Whitchurch said it's one way they're protecting students and teachers in the classroom. Still, she understands how the coronavirus is a threat to health safety, yet she's bringing her two children back to class too, for in-person learning this fall.

"We've gone through so many details and we've worked through so many issues and gone back and forth about what's best for the kids and I feel like with all of the pieces we've put in place, it's going to be OK,” said Whitchurch.

Those pieces include having fewer people in a small classroom. Instead, the school will stagger classes, which means they'll put some students in spaces like the cafeteria or library.

Students in the extra space will learn on a Chromebook, with the teacher broadcasting their instruction in real-time.

During the week, students will alternate between using a Chromebook and seeing the teacher face-to-face with masks on.

To sanitize the rooms, students will wipe down desks after every class.

Whitchurch said she believes it's a better option than only virtual learning. 

She said, "A lot of the kids who struggled last spring were the kids who need to see that from their teacher, they need to see that their teacher hears them and understands them and is willing to do whatever it takes to help."

It's a balancing act between the benefits of social interaction and health safety for students.

Senior Will Robertson plans to come back to school in-person on day one.

"I feel like it fosters my learning more as well as my other students believe they would say so as well,” said Will.

Junior Diana Ibarra-Balderas said she's choosing to continue virtual learning. “After two months, I'm probably coming back," she said.

She knows it's not the same experience as having a teacher in person. 

"So, I'm really nervous about that, because my classes I have harder classes this year,” Diana said.

Principal Franklin said their smaller school population makes returning to in-person learning possible.

"I do think we offer something very unique and very special here to be able to have a choice to either be on campus or to virtual learn,” she said.