Coronavirus forces Catholic schools to close through April 3

Teachers and administrators at St. Joseph School in Madison, like their counterparts at Catholic schools throughout the Diocese of Nashville, spent Friday, March 13, planning for how to teach their students in the event the schools are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Principal Michael LaHaie addresses his staff during the planning meeting.

Bishop J. Mark Spalding announced on Tuesday, March 17, that all Catholic schools in the Diocese of Nashville will be closed through Friday, April 3, because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The closure of schools could be extended if necessary.

School officials will be in direct contact with parents concerning provisions for the ongoing instruction of students while schools are closed.

“While events such as these can incite discord in communities, let us as people of faith, place our trust in God and pray for the intercessions of our Blessed Mother Mary, that all communities are restored to good health and that those who suffer any illness are granted comfort,” diocesan School Superintendent Rebecca Hammel wrote in a letter to parents. “Let us also continue to hold the recently deceased and those affected by the tornadoes in our prayers, that all may know the comforting love of our Heavenly Father.”

Before the March 17 announcement, Hammel had already directed school officials to have their schools deep-cleaned using products targeting COVID-19, MRSA, flu and common cold viruses during their spring break. 

Teachers and administrators at schools across the Diocese of Nashville had already been planning for delivering lessons to students at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic will require teachers to do things differently than they would in the classroom, Michael LaHaie, principal of St. Joseph School in Madison, told his teachers during their planning meeting on Friday, March 13. “We’re all going to have to be flexible. This year doesn’t look like any other year.”

Most schools in the diocese were closed for spring break from March 13 through March 22. The diocesan Catholic Schools Office provided guidelines and a list of resources to help teachers plan for providing lessons to their students online.

The first question teachers had to consider was how they would communicate with their students, said Tara Smith, who teaches a fifth grade class at St. Joseph.

Kindergarten teacher Alicia Hatchett listens as pre-kindergarten teacher Nanci Williams makes a point

“High schools have an advantage over us because they can communicate directly with students,” LaHaie said. At the elementary school level, the schools have to communicate with younger students through their parents, he said.

The first step will be to send an email to parents explaining how they will communicate assignments for their children, said Valerie Cox, a fifth-grade teacher at St. Joseph. That won’t be a completely new initiative, Cox said. “We’ve been communicating with them all year.”

“The parent-teacher bond is going to be tested now,” said Ginger DuBose, a pre-kindergarten teacher at St. Joseph. “They’re going to be very involved,” she said of parents.

That heightened level of parent involvement could lead to an improved level of cooperation between teachers and parents, DuBose said.

The Schools Office has recommended that teachers give their assignments only three to four hours of school work per day. That will make it hard to use live video for lessons, Cox said. “It’s hard to use video when trying to get a full day into three hours,” she said.

Instead, teachers will be giving students assignments to complete.

The schools office also recommended that each day’s assignments cover only a few subjects. For example, one day the lessons would be for math and science, and the next day would be for English and history, and so on.

Second grade teacher Sister Marie De Lourdes, O.P., makes a point during the planning discussion.

Middle school and high school teachers and their students already have experience using online quizzes, said Jayne Tuerff, the middle school science teacher at St. Joseph. Those will be among the tools teachers could use if schools are closed for an extended period, she said.

Several companies also are allowing schools and teachers across the country to use their programs and other resources free, said DuBose.

“Everybody in the country is having to do this,” LaHaie said. “You may find something that will work great for you.”

One of the goals of distributing lessons online when schools are closed is to make sure students don’t fall behind in their work. “If we do this well, they won’t be behind” when school resumes, said Angie Douglas, who teaches fifth grade at St. Joseph.W