“It’s been a while since we’ve been together here. But God has never left us.”
Principal Lisa Grellner’s voice boomed over the P.A. system in the St. George School Gymnasium in Linn.
“Good morning! Are we excited to be here?” she called out to the school’s 174 students in pre-school through eighth grade.
“Yes!” they erupted in unison.
It was 7:45 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 13, the first day of a new school year.
“We’ve missed you all so much!” said Mrs. Grellner. “We’re super excited to have you here today.”
The students wore facemasks and sat in groups with proper distance between them on the floor and bleachers.
Their teachers had used touchless thermometers to take each student’s temperature, one of many new things about life in a pandemic.
“We have a lot of changes this year,” Mrs. Grellner said, “but the main thing is, we’re going to be here together, and we can do a lot together.”
“We’re going to ask for prayers every day for everybody’s safety,” she said. “We’re going to wear our masks when we need to. We’re going to maintain the safest distances we can.”
After helping students lead a prayer of blessing for the new school year, Mrs. Grellner announced that the theme for the year would be “courage.”
“What does courage mean to you?” she asked. “That we aspire to have the courage to do the right thing! To do God’s will! To be a ray of sunshine in the clouds for someone else!”
Figuring it out
This was the first day of in-school instruction for the entire school since the students were dismissed on March 18 due to statewide restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
They spent the rest of this past school year learning at home, with help from their teachers and their parents.
“Each and every one of you accomplished so much more than anybody could have thought possible,” sixth-grade teacher Beth Parrish told her students.
“There were so many changes,” she noted. “We all had to grow in different ways. As students, you were really pushed in terms of what was expected from you at home.
“But you know what? We’re all back here, and we’re going to figure this out!” she said.
She encouraged her students to stop and pray whenever they need to and to rest assured that God sees the bigger picture, loves them more than they can imagine, and wants what’s best for them.
“And that’s what we want for you, too,” she said. “Does anybody really know what the best plan is? No, we don’t. But we’re going to do our best to keep you healthy and safe.”
Student by student, family by family, parents had accompanied their children to the gym entrance.
Several stopped to take photos next to the cornerstone.
“Have a good day, girls!” a mother called out while leaving.
“They will! They will!” a teacher responded.
It was third-grader Jackson Davis’s birthday — a distinction he seemed to be enjoying.
“I know there’s a smile underneath that mask!” Mrs. Grellner told him.
He said he’s happy to be back with his friends at school.
“I like to read books and stuff,” he said.
It was a new start for several other students.
Jerry Lutes and Whitney Huff were so impressed with how St. George School handled distance-learning with their preschooler, Connor, last year, they decided to enroll the rest of their children at St. George this year.
“It turns out that a Catholic education is the best route to go,” said Mr. Lutes.
He was specifically impressed with how the teachers continued supporting and interacting with the students throughout this spring’s stay-at-home order.
“St. George never gave up,” he said. “They remained very focused on the students and developing their potential over the long haul.”
“A bunch of new stuff”
Seventh-graders Elizabeth Sprenger and Sophie Voss have been at St. George since kindergarten.
“I like coming to St. George because it’s a good environment and there’s a higher standard that I need to live up to,” said Sophie. “And I like that responsibility and trying to be my best self.”
She said she’s looking forward to “progressing as a Christian and a learner.”
Elizabeth said the teachers at St. George are nice and helpful with homework, quizzes and tests and with learning good study skills.
She’s looking forward to “spending time with friends and learning a whole bunch of new stuff and more about math and science and other subjects.”
“Better than we think”
Like at all 37 Catholic grade schools and three Catholic high schools in the Jefferson City diocese, St. George students, teachers, staff and visitors are following explicit directives for promoting social distancing, keeping the learning environment clean and safe, and interrupting the spread of the virus within the school community.
The school administration and faculty are ready to modify the protocols and learning plan on short notice in the event the Osage County Health Department deems it necessary.
School personnel developed the protocols with input from the county health department and the diocesan Catholic School Office.
Mrs. Grellner noted that a dedicated group of parents and other parishioners had given the school a thorough deep-cleaning shortly before school started.
“I can’t tell you how much effort people put into volunteering for the school this summer,” she stated.
One parent reworked the wiring for better internet access. Another repaired the playground equipment. Another formatted the 51 Chromebook electronic devices the school had received with funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
“I like helping,” said Mrs. Grellener’s daughter, Sylvia, who graduated from St. George in 2015 and is now studying nursing at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.
Miss Grellner volunteered at St. George School this summer, helping with the daycare program, decorating bulletin boards and working on clean-up patrol.
“Going to this school helped prepare me for my academic success in high school, and it has helped me live a faith-filled life,” she said.
It’s also helping her in college, “because this school showed us how to push ourselves to do better than we think we can,” she stated.
The greatest gift
Several St. George teachers are also graduates of the school.
“I was taught nicely and I wanted to share that with my kids,” said Mary Jo Johnson, who is in her 25th year on the faculty.
She taught all of her own children when they were in kindergarten.
Second-grade teacher Elizabeth Reinkemeyer is in her 10th year of teaching, “and all of (her children) have been here.”
Not only is she a St. George graduate, so is her father.
“I was drawn to family and the familiar faces,” she said. “And I really like knowing all of the parents and being able to work with them.”
She always feels honored to help her students prepare for First Reconciliation and First Holy Communion, but this year, she’ll be teaching her own daughter and helping her prepare.
“That’s really a gift!” she stated.
She said she sends her children to a Catholic school because “I want my kids to be filled with helping others with their kindness and being in a place where they’re taught all of that by example.”
She sees the importance of teachers serving not only as educators but also as “parents away from home” — “to treat them the way I would treat my own kiddos.”
She’s praying for her students not only to remain healthy physically but also in terms of their social and emotional well-being.
“I think all of this has been really hard on them, even if they don’t all show it,” she said while her students enjoyed recess. “They haven’t been with people and able to play like this in five months.”
Continuing the legacy
Sister Linda Brandt of the School Sisters of Notre Dame is a St. George School graduate and is in her 16th year on the faculty.
She feels honored to help carry forward the legacy of the SSND congregation, which founded St. George school in 1883 and has been serving there ever since.
“I love the kids and the people and the spirit they have for Catholic education and how they all know each other and are friends with each other,” she said.
She says she works at remaining joyful through difficulties and joy, “because I’m with these children and they deserve the best I can bring to them.”
She goes out of her way to look at each child as a special gift her in her life and recognize “the beauty that is in each one’s heart.”
“I believe every child has a great potential to become more than what they are at the beginning of the year,” she said.
She prays for her students to “grow in their love for Jesus and in their belief in themselves, and become the best person that they can be in all ways.”
Teach what you practice
Mrs. Grellner grew up in a devout Catholic family in northern Missouri, where there aren’t nearly as many Catholics as in Osage County.
Her ties to St. George are through her husband, who is an alumnus.
“When I graduated from college, I was going to sign the first contract that was offered,” she recalled. “It was St. George.”
She pointed to the dedication of seventh-grade teacher Bob Marinowski, who has been on the faculty since 1969.
“He’s a true blessing,” she said. “He knows his Church history and he can relate to the kids.”
“Mr. M” is now teaching grandchildren of some of the people he once taught.
“And if he keeps teaching for a couple more years, he’s going to get the great-grandkids,” Mrs. Grellner noted.
Tina Eisterhold recently joined the St. George faculty, teaching art and fourth-grade math, science and language.
“This gives me an opportunity to teach and practice my religion,” she said. “It has allowed me to renew myself as a teacher and really get back to my basics as a Catholic.”
She is praying that the pandemic doesn’t create a new, permanent definition of “normal” for children.
“I want them to be able to get back to being the kids they are,” she said. “Yes, wash your hands and maintain a proper distance for a while. But children shouldn’t have to be fearful all the time.”