LEE — Third-grader William Felver, led by his mother Alyssa Felver, walked up to teacher Nancy Sutherland, who gave the boy a squirt of hand sanitizer.

His brothers Gregory (first grade) and Benjamin (kindergarten) soon followed for their own shot of infection-prevention gel before joining their classmates and teachers in the St. Mary's School parking lot. All wore face masks.

The Rev. Brian McGrath, pastor of the parish, was there to greet the youngsters arriving in a seemingly endless caravan of cars.

"Back to school can be fraught with anxiety and deep emotion, but this [opening day] has such a wonderful feel to it," McGrath said as he opened car doors.

Once all the students had arrived, each teacher marched their class into the building, the youngest boys and girls trying hard to properly social distance.

Welcome to opening day of the 2020-21 academic year, COVID-19-style.

St. Mary's is one of the 14 Western Massachusetts Catholic schools reopening for in-person learning for the first time since mid-March, when public and private schools shut down due to the pandemic.

Faculty, staff, parents, and students all seemed thrilled to be back on the Orchard Street campus.

"With our small numbers and class sizes, we knew we could open," said Principal Jennifer Masten. "For me, this is going to be emotionally and socially better for the students. Virtual learning took its toll on the family stress level."

The sudden school closing forced St. Mary's to quickly enact a remote learning system, she said, frustrating many teachers and parents.

"Doing a science lab from my kitchen table was tricky," said eighth grade teacher Cara Maiorano.

Masten said remote learning is only an option for St. Mary's households if a student needs to be quarantined.

The announcement by Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield in July that all its schools would return to traditional education was a boost to St. Mary's enrollment. Masten said enrollment is up to 110 — up 25 from last year — and nearly all of those new students enrolled after the announcement.

The three Felver boys are among the St. Mary's first-timers, their parents glad to find a school with a Christian environment.

"You can't expect a kindergartner to learn online," said Richard Felver, the boys' father.

His son Benjam n seemed to agree when asked what he missed the most about being in school.

"The library," he told an Eagle reporter.

Why?

"I like books," he said emphatically.

As the students settled into their classrooms Monday morning — thoroughly sanitized, desks 6 feet apart — eighth-grader Vanessa Bartini led the morning prayer, Pledge of Allegiance and read the daily announcements over the intercom.

Afterward, Vanessa was relieved she could ditch virtual learning and be back in the classroom.

"We are all so close here," she said. "We are like family and I missed that."

For kindergarten teacher Hope St. Jock, Monday was like a repeat of 2019, her inaugural year at St. Mary's.

"Last year was about figuring out how I wanted my classroom set up. Now I had to figure it out using [COVID-19] guidelines," she said. "It feels like my second first year."

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com