In a kindergarten classroom at Saint Maria Goretti Catholic School on Monday, nine students sit at desks all spaced 6 feet apart, facing forward. Some are surrounded by plastic dividers.

A large white screen displays the faces of six of their classmates who are learning from home on Zoom.

“Five, four, three, two, one; show me your boards everybody. What did you draw?” says teacher Heather Hernandez, as students hold up drawings on individual white boards.

Hernandez, in a blue checkered mask, keeps her distance as she inspects each one. Every two hours, Principal Kathleen Hernandez’s voice sounds over the intercom reminding teachers to sanitize surfaces.

For students retuning to classrooms in the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a new world of masks, hand-washing stations, plexiglass dividers, personalized toys and strict social distancing.

Heather Hernandez teaches her kindergarten class at St. Maria Goretti in Long Beach Monday, October 26, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

On Monday, Saint Maria Goretti in East Long Beach was the first school in the city to reopen for in-person classes after going through a waiver-application process. It was also the first Catholic school in Los Angeles County to reopen for in-class instruction.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in September voted to allow waivers for a limited number of schools to bring back students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Waivers are offered for up to 30 schools per week, prioritizing those with the highest number of low-income students who receive free or reduced-price school lunches. Soon after the supervisors’ vote, Long Beach’s health department also started accepting applications from schools that wanted young students back in the classroom.

For now, only private schools in Long Beach have applied for waivers. The Long Beach Unified School District has so far opted to hold off.

Other local schools that have been approved to reopen for TK through second grade include Bethany Lutheran, Los Altos Brethren and Los Altos Grace, and Maple Village Waldorf.

Saint Maria Goretti, a small school of 166 students from kindergarten to eighth grade, was approved last week to reopen for 69 students spread out among six classes.

A student raises her hand while in second-grade class as the students stay at their desk behind a divider. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Kathleen Hernandez, the principal, said she was the first to apply for a waiver because she felt the school’s small size would make it easier to follow the strict health orders.

Kathleen Hernandez said she’s hopeful things will run smoothly for the rest of the semester.

“I’m optimistic and I’m also nervous, because we can be as diligent as possible but the virus is still out there and it’s not going away,” she said. “You never want to be the first one to open and then first one to close. My hope is that we can all stay safe and healthy.”

Among the major changes, the school now has social distancing markers with the school emblem throughout the campus. Most students have transparent partitions on desks, and all are required to wear masks and have their temperature taken before stepping on campus.

Students can no longer share toys or school supplies and must keep their distance at recess. The school used federal coronavirus relief aid to pay for several hand-washing stations.

While other schools have seen pushback from teachers concerned about returning to in-class instruction, Kathleen Hernandez said her teachers were eager to come back. Teachers are required to be tested for COVID-19 each month.

A few hours into the first day of school Monday, things were running smoothly, Kathleen Hernandez said. For some kindergarteners, it was their first time in a classroom after starting the first half of the school year on Zoom.

“So far, nobody has cried,” she said.