Catholic educators throughout the archdiocese are finding that unprecedented challenges can be met with innovation, adaptation, and a generous amount of faith. The rapid spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) throughout the world left teachers, principals, and parents scrambling to meet the needs of students of all ages, as governments issued stay-at-home orders and churches and non-essential businesses were shuttered indefinitely.
Spring break afforded the principal and staff at Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School the opportunity to gear up for distance learning for its 170 students. Kathy Gustafson, principal of the pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade school, said distribution packets were prepared for younger children. Parents pick up materials and drop off completed work in the school’s foyer while maintaining social distance. There are also mail-in options.
One of the first tasks was to be sure that families had the necessary devices to access online content. Chromebooks were provided for those without or in cases of larger families with limited access to computers and other devices.
Older children can access lessons through Google Docs and participate with others via Zoom. Facebook has been used for live one-on-one meetings with teachers and students, and also for story hour for kindergartners.
Gustafson said that Saint Elizabeth’s has been able to continue with the curriculum it is currently using, Easyshare.com, a web-based photo sharing app, is being used for classes such as art, music, Spanish and physical education. Students and teachers are adopting diverse technologies to meet the needs of students in ways both creative and innovative.
The school continues its religious enrichment by streaming the parish’s Wednesday Mass via Facebook. Every day, the staff starts with prayer together on Zoom. “Consistency and connection are crucial,” Gustafson said. She updates parents with weekly emails.
The impact of COVID-19 caught everyone off guard, said Gustafson, who is impressed with how the older kids are helping younger siblings. Some have set up Zoom meetings with their friends, especially important now, with the cancellations of school events.
As for her staff, Gustafson said, “They worked hard before and they are working twice as hard now.” They have gone above and beyond and some have stretched themselves in new ways to learn about web-based sharing apps. “I am very impressed with their level of teaching and providing for the kids, especially under the circumstances,” she added.
One of those teachers is Laura McLaughlin, a fourth-grade educator at the school and mom to ten children—six of whom still live at home.
“It’s not been an easy run,” she said. “It’s crazy having everyone home, but it’s brought us together like I’ve never seen before.”
She creates daily paper assignments for her students and a YouTube video, which they can watch on their own time. They access Zoom twice a week for a virtual classroom experience. “Some are lonesome and just want to see their classmates,” McLaughlin said.
Her own children, three high schoolers, one middle schooler and one in elementary school, work through the various lessons provided by their teachers, “Everyone has so much going on,” she remarked.
Daily rosaries and Mass once a week on the parish website keeps them grounded in faith. “God has been instrumental,” she said, and added, “This is going to end up being a good thing for Catholic kids. They will understand their faith better as a family unit. This has strengthened our faith and our parish community as well.”
Our Lady of the Valley Catholic School principal Joyce Lund was in her car in the school’s parking lot when the Anchor conducted a phone interview. It was the elementary school’s Friday tailgate pick-up when parents receive packets of their children’s assignments for the upcoming week. In addition, school staff prepared Holy Week bags and Easter baskets with religious puzzles, Rubix cubes, and other treats to give to the students.
While many of the older children complete much of their schoolwork using Zoom, a web-based video conferencing tool, or Google Classroom, a free web service developed for schools, younger kids need paper and pencil based assignments to develop skills in penmanship, math, and other subjects, according to Lund.
With the help of parents or older siblings, even the youngsters, who are becoming more adept with web-based tools, have been able to participate in show and tell and other virtual sharing opportunities. All students are encouraged to call or text for pep talks, prayer time, or to connect with their teachers, Lund said
The pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school nurtures its students’ spiritual life by hosting chapel time and Mass on Zoom. Various modalities for deepening their faith are provided in the take-home packets. Lenten books, copies of prayers and different recitations for the day are included. Arts and crafts material are distributed to give the kids hands-on projects and reduce the amount of screen time, Lund said. “It is important we stay connected with our children,” she added.
Small group sessions can be virtually accessed for teaching algebra, high school level English courses, and there is a special group for those struggling academically. “The teachers are putting in countless hours to meet the needs of families and their children,” Lund added.
In addition to keeping the school’s classical approach to education, Lund said, “we are compassionately meeting the needs of these families, as there is a lot of stress.” Parents are worried, kids are missing their classmates and teachers, but they do communicate with friends, and are familiar with the work they are being asked to do.
Lund also emphasized the tremendous work the teachers are doing. She acknowledged and is grateful for their creating the pen and paper options for the younger kids, as well as the assistance of older kids, both online and at home.
“We are a faith community,” Lund concluded. “We pray together. We hang in there together.”
Brian Ross, principal of Lumen Christi Catholic High School, said that the school follows the schedule of the Anchorage School District. As spring break, which occurred the second week in March of this year, drew near its end, he met with teaching staff to plan for the possibility of the school’s closure. “We anticipated it might be coming,” he said.
As teachers formulated distant learning plans, they contacted the parents of each of their students to ensure they had access to computers and Wi-Fi capability. Confident in the students’ ability to access educational content, a weekly schedule for online interaction was created through Google Meet.
Using the video conferencing app, students can share video, engage in discussions, and meet virtually with their teachers and classmates., Ross said. Depending on the courses, they can also submit essays and take short-answer quizzes and tests. “We are continuing with our curriculum as best we can, given the circumstances,” Ross added.
Spiritual growth, a hallmark of Catholic education, is being addressed as well. Discussions and reflections on Lenten resolutions have been ongoing, and virtual participation of the Stations of the Cross through several online versions have been encouraged. “Some teachers have assigned reflection questions on Christ’s Passion,” noted Ross.
Father Tom Lilly, the pastor of Saint Benedict Parish, has been posting daily Mass on Facebook. Thursday is the school Mass day, and families are encouraged, though not required, to participate, Ross said.
“Things are working out really well,” Ross said. Giving the kids a routine has helped them to focus academically, though, ‘this does not replicate or match what we do in the classroom,” he added.
“Seniors are completing their courses and we do not anticipate extending their senior year.” As there will be no formal baccalaureate, Ross wants to be certain graduating seniors are acknowledged. All are on track to graduate this spring.
Ross was quick to point out that the support of teachers and parents has been critical to the success of distance learning at Lumen Christi. “We are truly blessed by fantastic teachers, supportive parents, and amazing kids who are really stepping up,” he said.
In acknowledgment of this time of confusion, seventh through twelfth-grade students at Holy Rosary Academy participated, via the Zoom app, in a reading of “The Bet,” a short story by Anton Chekhov—“an exploration of coping and managing isolation,” according to the school office manager, Robin Woyte. An ensuing discussion elicited, Woyte said, “a depth of conversation from these students who are, in fact, having to endure elements similar to those presented to the protagonist.”
The Anchorage school, which emphasizes the beauty of classical education, will be using the distance learning format for presentation of theses defenses by juniors and seniors in late April. Students will also be participating virtually in the online Alaska State Science and Engineering Fair.
In Kodiak, which at the time of this writing has not yet had a case of COVID-19, Saint Mary’s Catholic School principal, Teri Schneider, oversees the education of 61 students, with the help of twelve teachers and support personnel.
Enlisting technologies much as the other schools have, teachers have re-created, as much as possible, a classroom experience. Small groups meet throughout the day and take time to pray together, check-in with each other and learn of the challenges and needs that can be met while maintaining the necessary social distancing.
Older students have small group meetings via the Zoom app and Saint Mary’s pastor, Father Frank Reiter, posts a daily prayer service to each of the groups’ Facebook pages.
As Saint Mary’s school spring break was a week later than in Anchorage, Schneider said she had her teachers put something together for the kids before the week-long break. She instructed the children to take home books, clothing and other personal articles, which has left the cubbies empty of all but a few forlorn mittens, she said.
“The teachers have just taken off with it,” she said, of the challenge of distance instruction. “Each teacher knows the students so well. They can put together plans for exactly what they need.
“This has been the longest spring break,” Schneider said, “not knowing what is happening with the virus, there is overwhelming fear.”
Her concern, however, is with the students. “Spiritually, some of our kids really count on school being safe and comfortable. Being physically present with a child is not the same as being online,” she said. There are parents with younger kids who are in essential jobs and must keep working. Schedules are crazy now and distractions are an issue. “Families try to limit screen time,” she said, but now they are being asked to devote hours to online learning.
As one kindergartner, confused by the tumult and disruption said, “this just isn’t okay.”
As schools navigate the new normal of this unprecedented time, a common sentiment is, perhaps, the most compelling: “We are all in this together.”