WINCHESTER — When Courtney Seniff's two children, Ella and Jack, woke up full of excitement at 5 a.m. Monday for the first day of Sacred Heart Academy's 2020-21 school year, it made her want to cry.

"I haven't seen that joy since I guess last [school] year when they were with all of their friends, so I was kind of worried about waking them up early and instead they woke me up and were ready to go," Seniff said. 

Monday marked the first time Sacred Heart Academy has been open for in-person classes since March, when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered K-12 schools across Virginia. The private parochial school is offering in-person classes five days a week with an online live-streaming option for students more comfortable learning from home during the pandemic.

Sacred Heart Academy and other private schools in the area have seen an uptick in enrollment because many are offering in-person classes five days a week this fall. Local public school divisions are offering in-person classes on a reduced basis or online only. Sept. 8 is the first day of school for students in the Winchester, Frederick County and Clarke County public schools.

The unusual start to the school year for many students is a result of coronavirus precautions.

Seniff said when Sacred Heart Academy announced it would hold in-person classes five days a week, there was no doubt in her mind that her children would return.

"They needed this. It had been so long since they had felt that since that sense of belonging," said Seniff, who moved to the Winchester area last year. "They were very excited to see basically their family again."

Seniff and her children had a countdown to the first day of school, which was originally slated for Aug. 26 at Sacred Heart Academy but had to be pushed back to Monday to make time for more coronavirus-related preparations.

Besides her own home, Seniff believes that Sacred Heart Academy is the safest place her children can be right now as COVID-19 persists, particularly because of the school's small class sizes and the safety precautions that are in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

On Monday, students wore face masks, had their temperatures taken and practiced social distancing.

Principal Erica Palaza said the children were good about wearing their masks throughout the day.

"I really give a lot of credit to the parents for training the children before they came to school to be able to keep themselves safe and to keep their friends safe," Palaza said.

Overall, Palaza said the first day of school went smoothly, although the drop-off and pickup process might need "fine-tuning."

Palaza said students were in good spirits.

"I just think that they were happy to be back, regardless of what the circumstances were," she said.

Sacred Heart Academy serves infants through eighth graders. The average classroom size this year will be 12 to 15 students, with a total enrollment of about 260. In a normal school year, the average class size is about 25 students. Tuition ranges from $6,294 to $8,000 depending on grade level and Catholic registration status. Fees remain unchanged this year, Palaza said in a previous interview.

When schools first closed for in-person learning in March, Seniff said her children were OK with it, but they started to feel "freaked out" when they realized it was unknown when schools would reopen.

Even when schools were closed, Seniff said Sacred Heart Academy did a good job holding virtual classes, adding that the school was the only thing that provided her family a sense of normalcy and consistency when the pandemic began. 

When in-person classes ceased, Palaza began holding weekly meetings with parents and the school community over the teleconference video app Zoom about handling the pandemic. 

Those weekly talks helped ease Seniff's mind, with Palaza telling parents the school community would get through this public health crisis together.

While it's possible the pandemic could force Sacred Heart Academy to return to online learning, Seniff wasn't thinking about that on Monday.

"I don't know what the future holds, but for today, the fact that they're in school and they're safe, is a good day," Seniff said. 

— Contact Anna Merod at amerod@winchesterstar.com

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