Schools are closed but teaching continues

Karen Musacchio helps her son Christopher Musacchio, a fourth grader at Christ the King School in Nashville, with his classroom assignments from home March 24. The Diocese of Nashville has announced that Catholic schools will remain closed through April 24, but schools are continuing to teach classes online and are offering resources and materials to help students continue learning from home.  Photo by Rick Musacchio 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered schools across the Diocese of Nashville. Hallways are silent and classrooms are empty to protect students, teachers and staff from the spread of the virus.

Although the schools are closed, the education of students from pre-kindergarteners to high school seniors is continuing, all of it moved online.

“It’s gone sooooo smoothly,” said Sister Anna Laura, O.P., principal of St. Cecilia Academy. “The students have really risen to the occasion. Particularly our seniors. They’re being conscientious of their work and handing in some really insightful reflections in their classes.”

“I’ve been really impressed,” said Jennifer Dye, the director of innovation at Pope John Paul II High School, who has led the school’s switch to digital learning. “I thought it would be more challenging actually than it has been.”

Schools in the diocese got a head start in planning how to educate students confined to their homes. As the schools headed into spring break March 16-20 and before diocesan School Superintendent Rebecca Hammel announced schools would be closed because of the COVID-19 virus, she and her staff in the Catholic Schools Office asked the administrators and faculty at all the schools to begin planning for distance learning.

Although all schools had varying levels of experience with online learning and communicating electronically with students and their families, they were forced to ramp up the use of those resources.

“I don’t know if anybody in the country was prepared to turn their whole school digital,” said Jennifer Anton, academic dean at Father Ryan High School.

“We started with a faculty meeting just trying to wrap our heads around what school would look like,” Dye said.

“The immediate thought was how do we continue our academic program in a way that will allow our students to continue to flourish,” said Sister Anna Laura. “How do we have this learning we usually have in the classroom happen remotely using this technology?”

The schools already had some tools in place.

“We have actually implemented digital learning for four years” for summer school classes, Anton said. “So we have had experience in delivering content digitally already. We had to change the scale of that.”

Instead of a few summer school students, now Father Ryan had to deliver classroom content for all of its nearly 900 students.

“Our goal was to continue to deliver a Father Ryan education to our families,” Anton said. “We approached this in a way that said Father Ryan has gone digital. We want to deliver the experience we have in the past. How do we do that?”

For St. Rose of Lima School in Mur­freesboro, its 366 students and their families, that has meant using the internet and social media to share activities that are a normal part of the school day.

The school is posting a daily message to families on a Microsoft Sway page.  There is a place on the page to take attendance, and every day, a different student leads the morning prayer online while another leads the Pledge of Allegiance, said Principal Sister Catherine Marie, O.P. “We also do prayer intentions … so we can all join in prayer daily even though we’re apart.”

“Our teachers are fully online,” Sister Catherine Marie said. They are posting assignments and lessons, and videotaping parts of lessons, as well as using the video conferencing platform Zoom to lead lessons, she said.

“There is also a lot of project-based work that is going on,” Sister Catherine Marie said, such as students spending time in their yards working on a science project. “From pre-school through eighth grade there’s a lot of activity.

“It’s taken a lot of creativity too,” Sister Catherine Marie added. “You have to adapt to the circumstances, and that takes creativity.”

‘It’s about being together’

As the staff and faculty at JPII were considering how to support parents, students and teachers, Dye said, “It became pretty apparent we needed a single repository.”

The school has created a COVID-19 page on its website where the community can find information and updates from the school, educational and other resources for students, teachers and parents, links to daily Mass, and other items, such as tips about how to keep from being isolated while staying at home.

“The educational companies have been fantastic in that they know the crisis situation schools are in right now and they are offering free access to their products,” Dye said. 

For the last two years, JPII has been a “one to one” school, with every student being issued an iPad that they use to receive and complete assignments.

“Our students and faculty are incredibly adept at using that,” which has been helpful in the current situation, Dye said.

The school also is using Zoom to hold four 50-minute classes from 8 a.m. to noon every day.

“Zoom is awesome because you can literally see your own class,” Dye said. “There’s even a feature they can raise their hand and you can call on them. … It can work very much like a classroom even though the students are not in the classroom with you.

“It’s not the same as being in a classroom, but you can still have community,” she said. “School is not just about work. It’s about being together.”

The classes are shorter than when they are held in the building, Dye said.

“We’re trying to provide instruction without overwhelming our students and faculty by requiring them to be on their devices all day long,” she said. “We understand it’s not a great thing to be on your computer for a whole school day.”

School leaders were concerned students at home sharing computers and bandwidth with siblings and parents working from home, might not always have access to their technology, Dye said.

“We have tried to resolve that by having flexibility,” she said. Teachers are recording their classes and making that available for students who can’t get to the class.

JPII is also using Google Classroom for teachers to hand out assignments that the students work on using their iPad, Dye said. “And then they can turn it back in like you were in a classroom. We’ve been doing that for two years now. That part of the equation was easy for us.”

Teachers also have online office hours for two hours a day so students can contact them with questions or problems, Dye said.

 ‘Layers of challenges’

Father Ryan and St. Cecilia decided not to hold classes using video confer­encing platforms like Zoom. Instead, their teachers each day are posting assignments, videos and other resources, enough content to fill a class period, and students have the flexibility to set their own schedule to do the work.

“The family may have one device for all the kids to work on,” Anton said. “We thought it was important for our students with siblings to have some flexibility. The older kids have the ability to work a little more independently.”

“There are layers of the challenges people are facing,” Sister Anna Laura said. As she has been calling families to check on them, “you really do get a glimpse of the navigation families are needing to do.”

Teachers at Father Ryan and St. Cecilia also have online office hours, during which students can contact them to ask questions and get help.

“The kids use technology really well,” Anton said. “I’ve seen whole classes of people meeting at the same time because the kids all chose to be there at the same time.”

Those kinds of interactions are important, Anton said. “It’s important to care for our kids, to not just teach them the content.

“What makes Father Ryan different is the relationships kids form with the people on campus,” she said. “Maintaining relationships digitally was going to be a challenge.”

St. Cecilia’s teachers and staff shared the concern over how to keep their students from feeling isolated, Sister Anna Laura said. “There’s no way to replace what we do every day at school in way of interaction.”

Although Father Ryan teachers might not be connected to all their students at the same time as they would in a traditional classroom, they are keeping tabs on their students, Anton said.

If a student does not complete an assignment or is not responding to emails, the teacher passes that information on to school administrators, who reach out to the student and their parents, she explained.

“We have lots of people checking in on kids,” Anton said. 

Commitment to service

Schools are also working to maintain the connection to faith that has always been part of a Catholic education. Schools are posting religious resources, prayers, spiritual reflections and Masses online for their students.

“We’re just trying to maintain the normal,” Dye said. For JPII, that includes a daily morning prayer and reflection and livestreaming a daily Mass celebrated by the school’s chaplain, Father Andrew Forsythe.

St. Rose has included a link to join St. Rose pastor Father John Sims Baker online for the Liturgy of the Hours, Sister Catherine Marie said.

St. Cecilia’s religion classes are discussing the idea of “spiritual communion,” which is accepting Christ into your heart even when attending Mass in person is not possible, Sister Anna Laura said.

Many schools have service requirements for their students. Instead of volunteering in the community, schools are allowing students to meet their service requirements by helping their siblings with their school work or cooking a meal for their family and other ways of helping around the house.

“Very simple things that right now are so important,” Sister Anna Laura said. “We’re going to have a lot of service hours that will help the girls grow in the realization service starts at home.”

JPII also is conducting a school-wide service project from home. The school has posted instructions for sewing face masks, Dye said.

The masks, made from a pattern provided by Vanderbilt University Medical Center, can be used by people who need to leave their homes for a doctor visit or to shop for groceries, Dye said. “They’re going to be enough to provide protection to people … with a compromised immune system.”

“Feeling productive when things are shut down is important,” Dye said. Service projects help students and their families make an impact, even when they are confined to home,” she said. “That is really important right now.”