GRASS VALLEY, Calif. -- Inside Mount St. Mary's Academy, a Catholic school in this Gold Rush town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary stands sentinel over the check-in table at the front door. Students returning for the fall session stop under her watchful gaze for a modern ritual of pandemic life: temperature check, hand sanitizer, questions on their potential as virus vectors.
Thursday morning, Principal Edee Wood wore a red paisley-printed mask as she wielded a digital thermometer intended to protect the 160 students at her school, one of the few in California attempting in-person classes this fall. At Mount St. Mary's, life is going back to normal with crisp uniforms, sharp pencils and classes five days a week.
While remote learning is the rule at nearly all public schools right now, Mount St. Mary's is opening because it is in Nevada County, which is not on the state's coronavirus watchlist, and also because its administrators believe it can do so safely.
As parents across California struggle with plans for more at-home schooling, Mount St. Mary's is engaging in an experiment it hopes will provide a model for other schools like it, said Lincoln Snyder, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, which oversees 38 campuses enrolling about 13,000 students from the capital north to the Oregon border.
While a handful of those are now back in classrooms, Snyder hopes to reopen them all in coming weeks, using plans that he has been working on since the virus first forced schools to close in March. He is on the fourth version of those rules.
"Obviously we are all learning as we go," Snyder said. But he is adamant that kids belong in class and that smaller, private schools like his are "nimble" enough to do it safely.
How, where and which kids return to school in California is mired as much in politics as health concerns, though.
Across the state, debates are raging about the risks kids and teachers face, how children are weathering the mental health ramifications of isolation and how working parents can cope with distance learning. Allowing some schools to reopen also raises issues of equity -- tuition at Mount St. Mary's is about $5,000 a year, though many families receive financial help.
In Grass Valley, a place where local Wendy Ermshar said "you'll see Trump stuff everywhere and then you'll see Black Lives Matter stuff everywhere," some see Mount St. Mary's as engaging in arrogant foolishness, while others see it providing an essential service.
Weeks ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom put in place a complex rubric for when schools can resume in-person instruction in the 38 counties that have a high prevalence of the coronavirus, prompting most large districts to announce remote learning for the fall. But Newsom also created a waiver system that allowed schools with risk-mitigation plans to apply to their local health departments for permission to return to on-campus education.