In Catholic schools, education is more than academics. It’s about caring for the whole person: emotionally, socially, physically and spiritually.
In the days since Pennsylvania schools were ordered to close on March 13 from coronavirus concerns, Catholic schools throughout the Diocese have risen to the occasion, discovering and implementing ways to carry on their mission in uncertain and challenging times.
Traditional classrooms have been replaced with Google Classrooms and Zoom Cloud Meetings; daily prayer in school chapels offered now on Facebook Live or in e-mail links to parents.
For many, digital connectivity is not new, and such plans have been in place with the advent of Flexible Instruction Days. But those practices were intended for short-term needs, and with necessity comes ingenuity.
Comfort in Culture, Connection
In her fifth-grade social studies class at St. Joan of Arc School in Hershey, Lynne Shapiro tells her students, “Culture is comfort.”
Adapting to the challenge of educating during times of social distancing, Shapiro is putting that classroom lesson into practice.
“We are in such unsettling times, and the kids feel it too. They can’t go to school, they can’t see their friends, they can’t do their school activities. Giving them a routine to let them know that we still have some work to do and they can connect with me sends a message that we’re still here, and that we’re all still connected,” she said.
“Kids need to feel secure. Culture is comfort, and school is very much their culture. Our job as teachers is to nurture them and help them to know that someone is always there for them, even if they’re at home,” she remarked.
Prepared as all Diocesan schools were with educational packets for Flexible Instruction Days, St. Joan of Arc School also equipped students with a week’s worth of materials from the start of the shutdown. Since then, teachers having been adding more materials, videos and links through digital platforms so education and connection can continue.
Andy and Joanna Sheehan, parents of four children there, said they “have been very pleased and excited about the opportunities that SJA is making available to our children.”
That includes formal instruction as well as the encouragement of continuing routines and practicing acts of kindness in their daily activities, the Sheehans said. “As parents, the fact that the staff at SJA has been accessible, thorough and prompt with communication has allowed us to continue and develop new routines and provide continued instruction.”
“This is all new territory for all of us. It is helpful for us to maintain a routine while allowing our children some opportunity to express their individuality with how they complete some optional activities – for example, service-based activities versus strictly traditional class work,” they said.
“Sharing the laughing points as well as the frustrations of these new circumstances reminds us that we are not alone,” the Sheehans remarked. “It also serves as a reminder of how important it is to pray each other through this struggle until we resume some normalcy in our lives.”
Shapiro communicates with students and parents via ClassDojo, a communication app that connects classrooms and parents. She uploads video messages of well-wishes and encouragement to her students, and also of herself presenting lessons.
“Students have responded that it was nice for them just to see me and hear my voice,” Shapiro said.
As the days of distance learning continue, teachers are challenged to develop and implement methods of education and connectivity, and to do so in a way that is beneficial to students with various needs.
“As a teacher, I have to consider how I pare down the curriculum so that it can be distributed and equitable for everyone,” Shapiro said. “We have students with learning issues and ADHD. In school, we can help them. When they’re at home, I can’t help them refocus or reread a sentence to them. The challenge is finding a way to balance things that the students can do, without also overwhelming them or their parents. Yes, I still want them to learn certain things, but I also want to keep equity in learning.”
She’s also established ways for students to connect in prayer and maintain school spirit.
Shapiro adapted her in-class WhiteBoard, where students write their prayer intentions, into a digital WhiteBoard, where they can continue to post. “Everyone can still see the intentions and we can continue to prayer together as a class,” she said.
Shapiro also helped initiate “virtual days” on Facebook, where students submit pictures of themselves dressed in different themes, such as “crazy sock day,” “wacky pajama day” and “team spirit day.” Shapiro said sharing the photos “has been a great way to maintain school spirit and feel more connected.”
Maintaining connection with students was so important for Colleen Kassman, a first-grade teacher at St. Andrew School in Waynesboro, that she brainstormed an idea to connect them via Zoom, and now gathers with her class several times a week to read, play games and enjoy virtual field trips.
Kassman sent instructions to parents on how to download the free Zoom service and set up a group test to ensure everyone could connect. She typically offers 40-minute sessions at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., but has since added in more days and times, especially at the students’ request.
On the screen, Kassman and her students see everyone else’s smiling faces, similar to The Brady Bunch’s opening screen. “They spend the first few minutes saying hi to each other, and you can see their faces light up when they see each other,” Kassman said.
The first graders have enjoyed virtual games of Candyland and Bingo, reading books, watching videos and a field trip to the San Diego Zoo.
And sometimes, things can go off the rails, like when the savvy students figured out how to “unmute” their microphones while Kassman was leading them in a scholastic program. “One by one, I heard them say, ‘I unmuted myself,’ and it was hysterical!” Kassman said. “I said, ‘Well, it’s just like being in the classroom! Sometimes you lose complete control.’”
“But honestly, connecting with them has been my saving grace,” she said. “It has been so devastating, as every teacher knows, to say goodbye. We found out on 2:30 on that Friday that schools were closing. I didn’t want to scare them, so I said, ‘Take these packets with you, and we’ll see you in a couple weeks!’ It was so fast. They left and we all cried. It was just awful. And right away I knew I had to do some video calls with them so that we can continue to be a classroom.”
Rising to the Challenge
“We’re being creative in how we’re continuing our mission of educating students. Our major focus at this point is really just to provide some continuity in education, so kids aren’t just sitting there stagnant,” said Vince Harper, principal of Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg.
“We had already been using some platforms for remote learning, and a lot of teachers were already familiar in getting lessons online using Google Classroom and other mediums,” he said. “When we had a feeling schools would be closing, President David Gardiner and I met to strategize…and with the teachers, we went right into preparing to deliver our lessons via an online learning style.”
“We know education is going to look different. We know it’s not going to be business as usual, but we want to do everything in our power to make sure we’re not shortchanging these kids, especially our seniors. That’s a lot to go through in their senior year,” Harper said.
In calling students to rise to the challenge of distance learning, Bishop McDevitt’s faculty and administrators are also trying to help balance students’ physical and emotional needs, adapting assignments, workloads and deadlines to keep them from being overwhelmed.
“We are going to continue to keep an eye on where they’re at,” Harper said. “Some of the adaptations give them a little more flexibility in their approach to their education, help them self-monitor and self-pace so they don’t have to feel they need to sit from 8:00-3:00 in front of a computer screen and just push through.”
Daily updates via Facebook, continued connection to students and parents, and video from school chaplain, Father Joshua Weaver, are helping connect the McDevitt community in the midst of isolation and uncertainty.
“This experience has reinforced for me the family atmosphere that I’ve always known we’ve had. I’m sure there is a lot of anxiety parents, students and teachers are feeling as far as where we’re going to go, but our Crusaders have always had a sense of family,” Harper remarked. “What I can see right now is that they’re appreciative that we’re continuing education, they’re appreciative that we are trying to do what’s best for them, and that we’re being flexible. They know that at the end of the day, this is going to be a unifying experience for all of us and will reinforce that family that we love so much.”
“We want everybody to hang in there and know that we’ll get through this. As long as we have faith in Christ and we do what we need to do to protect ourselves, he’s going to get us through,” he said.
A Community of Faith
Art Bamert, campus minister at Lancaster Catholic High School, asked himself, “What can I do?”
With a campus ministry center open throughout the day and a chapel that is home to morning Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy each day, campus ministry interaction at Lancaster Catholic is intentional and constant.
“For me, being out of school is like hitting a brick wall,” Bamert said. “The part of me that wants to minister to my students can’t engage like I normally do.
Sorely missing the 7:30 a.m. daily Rosary in the school chapel that he shares with several students and faculty, Bamert decided to continue the effort – just in a digital way.
Now, each weekday at 9 a.m., he leads an online community in the Rosary, live from Lancaster Catholic’s Facebook page. He begins with a few words of encouragement, and then turns his camera to a laptop showing various images to reflect on during the prayer – including scenes of Jesus’ life and works, and of the Stations of the Cross.
“People can open Facebook at 9 a.m., and we can spend 15-20 minutes reminding ourselves that, while we are separated by miles, we are connected as the Catholic High community through our faith. We can pray for each other and ask the Blessed Mother to wrap us up in our arms as we suffer through this,” Bamert said.
He encourages people to turn to prayer especially in these times of isolation, uncertainty and anxiety.
“There is clinical evidence that prayer is effective for anxiety, particularly the Rosary,” he remarked. “When you pray the Rosary, the pacing of it slows your heartrate and regulates your breathing. It doesn’t shock me that the God who created us would give us a vehicle to connect with him and help us spiritually, emotionally and physiologically. There is a direct benefit to prayer. “
“It’s a healing balm to be able to pray. So much goodness can come from doing it,” Bamert said. “My hope is that, when this is all over and we come back to school, people will be more engaged in the Rosary daily, and we have more people coming to our chapel to pray.”
Sister Danielle Truex, IHM, principal of Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Lancaster, regularly participates in Lancaster Catholic’s digital Rosary.
“One of the hardest things about all this is the very human reflexive need in times of uncertainty to be with one another, and that’s the very thing that we can’t do in the normal way right now,” she said.
“On a normal school day, I stand outside the building and see how everyone’s feeling, and I’m the first one to greet them in the morning. “I am really missing the face to face connection and communication that we do on a daily basis,” she said.
To help alleviate that loss, Sacred Heart has been conducting regular meetings with faculty and with parents via Zoom, in addition to daily e-mails of prayer and uplifting messages that Sister Danielle sends. This followed the school’s action plan to send students home with educational materials to continue learning from home.
“In the first Zoom meetings, we gave parents information about our plans going forward, and Father [Michael] Metzgar, our pastor, talked to them about the importance of their spiritual life. Our school counselor also talked about the social and emotional challenges for the kids,” she said.
Sister Danielle is now planning to have office hours, and while they won’t be in her normal spot alongside a bustling school office, her availability on Zoom will give parents and families additional opportunity to connect and update her on how the students are faring.
“Educationally, we know that relationships are important things to provide our children,” she said.
“All things considered, with God’s grace and a strong sense of community, we’ve been able to pull together to do the best for our kids. I’m really proud of our community. They’ve showed such charity, patience and positivity.”
She said the pause to normal life “has been a great opportunity for me to really focus on what the essentials of mission are. A huge part of our mission is in building relationships with our families, parishioners and friends. It’s very apparent to me, through this situation, how valuable those relationships are and how they bring us closer to God, together.”
“Catholic education is about caring for the whole person. We’re still doing that,” Sister Danielle said.
“We have parishioners who are supportive of our children and families, families who are sharing their life with us in such a positive way, and teachers who generous in sharing their time and spirit. None of this would be possible without all of them,” she remarked. “It’s a community effort, and God has given us the graces to respond to this, and I’m confident we’ll have the graces to do so, whatever comes next.”
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness