By: Michael Wiencek
Principal, Yap Catholic High School
July 6, 2021- As the world adjusted to the “new normal” of social distancing – mask wearing, staying home, and Zoom meetings – Yap Catholic High School and the islands of Yap continued their mission of educating students in the service of God and others with little to no changes in our day-to-day operations. Yap is one of four states of the Federated States of Micronesia (F.S.M.) situated about 500 miles southwest of Guam. The F.S.M. has a strong relationship with the United States of America; these two nations share a Compact of Free Association agreement with many mutual benefits for both nations. In March 2020, as the United States began to close schools to in person instruction, the F.S.M. closed off its borders to all incoming passengers to shield itself from the effects of COVID-19.
My wife (fiancée at the time) and I were just returning from a trip to Philadelphia to celebrate my younger brother’s wedding when COVID began its rapid rise across the United States. During our three-week visit to the States, we enjoyed a joyous wedding weekend in the city with no one concerned about masks or staying six feet apart. We traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., to visit with former directors of YCHS and longtime friends of Micronesia including Fr. Mickey Corcoran, SJ; Fr. Jack Mattimore, SJ; Fr. Ken Hezel, SJ; and Fr. Rich Zanoni, SJ. I presented to an assembly hall filled with hundreds of students at Canisius High School and then enjoyed lunch with the senior students, faculty members, and principal who visited Yap for a service trip in June 2019. During this trip, COVID was still a great unknown and was not something anyone was deeply concerned about in the U.S. Now, as I write this reflection, I am astounded to think that the borders into Yap have been closed for more than 15 months.
During our travels back to Micronesia in mid-March 2020, we were called up to the United counter at each layover to be given a new update on whether or not we would be allowed to travel straight back into Yap. We were anticipating having to wait in Guam for two weeks, which was free of COVID-19 when we took off from Philadelphia International Airport. Within 24 hours of landing in Guam, the first cases of COVID-19 were reported for the U.S. territory. Suddenly, waiting 14 days in Guam was not an option, and we were able to fly back to Yap on the next available flight to be part of the first 15-day quarantine group at the Yap Sports Complex. There was only one more United flight into Yap after ours, and then the F.S.M. closed its borders, which remain closed upon the writing of this article with the small exception of a limited number of repatriation flights to the island state of Pohnpei which is over 1,300 miles east of Yap.
God’s blessings across Micronesia have been abundantly evident throughout this global pandemic. Personally, my wife and I were blessed to be able to have such an unbelievable visit with my friends and family in the States, and then being able to return to our home on Yap before the borders closed. As a school, YCHS has been blessed to only have the most minor of disruptions to our academic schedule and activities when schools were closed in April 2020 as a precaution. YCHS led the way in the re-opening of schools in Yap on May 1, 2020, after many meetings and discussions with the Yap State Health Crisis Task Force and other government officials. As an island state, Yap has been blessed to have zero recorded cases of COVID-19 due to the border closure to all incoming passengers and strict policies and procedures for incoming cargo on ships and planes. As a Church community, the Catholic parishes of Yap did not once have to stop celebrating communal Masses.
Yet despite the plethora of blessings, we have received through being able to completely block ourselves off from the rest of the world for the past 15 months, there have been ample challenges brought forth by the pandemic. In March 2020, YCHS sent our two volunteer teachers home to the United States to be safe with their families. Our school relies on the support of volunteer teachers to complete our faculty and staff each year due to a limited number of qualified teachers on island, and since borders have closed, our local team has needed to cover the gap due to the inability to bring in our anticipated volunteers from the U.S. With limited flights and ships coming into Yap coupled with manufacturing challenges in the States due to COVID-19, we experienced extreme delays in school orders from off island, and many teachers went months working small miracles each day until textbooks and other supplies arrived. With other private schools on island unable to open due to teacher shortages, YCHS squeezed extra desks into its classrooms to accommodate students who were unable to return to their schools. Financially, YCHS depends heavily on monetary donations from sponsors and benefactors spanning from Guam, to Hawai’i, to Australia, to the mainland United States; during the pandemic, like many schools and non-profit organizations, we saw declines in off-island support as our donors were affected by the pandemic. My wife and I celebrated the Sacrament of Matrimony without my family and friends being able to join us on island.
But of course, through these unique challenges to our school and island community, God graced us with His guiding hand. Every member of the YCHS faculty, staff, and administration willingly offered to take on extra classes and duties without a moment of hesitation. Founding Board member, Norman McComb, volunteered to teach Senior World History for the entire school year. Financial assistance from the FSM National Government almost doubled for YCHS for school year 2020-2021. Over one hundred of my family and friends were able to join our wedding celebration via Zoom and experience virtually the beautiful culture of Yap.
St. Ignatius calls us to “find God in all things,” and even during this global pandemic that we were largely isolated from on our islands, God inundated our lives on Yap with His grace and blessings so that it was not that hard to find Him during this difficult year for all around the globe.