Schools making adjustments as academic year comes to a close

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Pope John Paul II High School replaced its annual Senior Walk with a Senior Drive through the parking lot. Faculty and staff, instead of lining the halls, lined the drives of the parking lot to say goodbye to the school’s graduating seniors. Bishop J. Mark Spalding waves to a passing senior. He was blessing them as they passed. Photos by Andy Telli

It’s been a strange year for Catholic schools.

“In all my years of teaching, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Marsha Wharton, principal of St. Edward School in Nashville. “But you try to make the best of it.”

Schools in the Diocese of Nashville were forced to send their students home in mid-March and finish the year with distance learning, due to precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“The hardest thing about all this is every week it’s changed,” said Michael Deely, headmaster of Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville. “It’s the constant anxiety of the unknown.”

Schools have had to adjust not only how they deliver an education to students confined to their homes, but also a host of traditional end-of-the-year events, including graduation.

“We’re monitoring state guidelines” for when and how large groups will be permitted to gather, said Rebecca Hammel, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Nashville.

“Everyone hoped to have face-to-face graduations, but in Davidson County that’s not possible to do that for a while,” she said.

“We’re looking at different options and opportunities,” she said, including rescheduling graduation ceremonies to June or July. “We really hope conditions allow us to do something face-to-face.”

“It’s important to honor the commitment and achievements of our seniors and all of our students,” Father Ryan High School President Jim McIntyre said.

“We are considering dates and locations now for celebrating our graduation, baccalaureate Mass, awards presentations, and many of the events that were scheduled for these last months of the school year,” he said. “But those dates and locations will be dependent on the directives of the diocese, the city and the state regarding gathering during this time.

“We are communicating with our parent community regularly and expect to have decisions by the middle of May,” he added.

JPII also is looking at alternate dates for its graduation, and the Opry House, where JPII usually holds its graduation, is willing to work with the school about new dates, Deely said.

If the Opry House is not an option, the school could consider holding graduation ceremonies on campus.

When Pope John Paul II High School replaced its annual Senior Walk with a Senior Drive, it was an opportunity for the Class of 2020 and the faculty and staff to be together again for the first time since distance learning began in mid-March.

“I’d rather have an experience where they could walk” with family and friends there to watch, Deely said. “All of this will depend on what the rules are in the state and our county at the time.”

At the elementary school level, the pandemic restrictions have wreaked havoc with the scheduling of First Communions and Confirmations as well.

“It’s huge,” Wharton said of the importance of those two events to the community. The students have been preparing for these two sacraments the whole year, she said.

The diocese has announced that confirmations previously scheduled for this spring will be rescheduled for the fall, beginning in September.

“We’re still waiting to hear about First Communion,” Wharton said.

Virtual events

Some traditional year-end events have become virtual. Schools across the diocese have been announcing end of year awards in videos they’ve shared online. 

St. Cecilia Academy will hold a Rosary Procession and the annual May Crowning online this year on Friday, May 1. 

Students will be watching online to talks by Father Gregory Pine, O.P., and Claire Swinarski, a blogger at The Catholic Feminist, as well as the Rosary Procession and the crowning of the statue of Mary by the school’s Sodality President Josie McCullars. 

In a normal year, the event would wrap up with a traditional tea for the seniors and their mothers. This year, the school is encouraging the seniors to dress up, have a tea at home, and take a picture with their mother, “just like we would do it on campus,” said Jennifer Crouch, the director of marketing and communications for St. Cecilia.

Carrying on traditions is important, Crouch said. “It keeps the community together even though we are so separated. … There were some things we wanted them to know will always be the same.”

St. Edward is converting its Field Day, one of the highlights of the year for the students, into a virtual event. Physical education teacher Jenny Hicks videotaped her children doing Field Day events at home and invited the rest of the students to do the same and send her the videos, which she will compile into a single video, Wharton said.

The students “always look forward to Field Day,” Wharton said. “They love Field Day.”

“These are the things the kids remember, the field days, the graduations, the field trips,” Wharton said. “Hopefully they’re going to remember the fun things” about this year, she said.

Schools have had to adjust in other ways.

At JPII, one of the year-end traditions, Senior Walk, became Senior Drive. Instead of the seniors walking through the halls of the school one last time as students, teachers and staff say good-bye, the seniors and their families this year drove through the parking lot as the faculty and staff cheered them on.

“That was such a wonderful time to be together,” said Hammel, who was present for the event. “It was joyful and provided some closure.”

“It was amazing,” said Deely. “I’m grateful we took as much time as we did to plan it.”

Not only was the event a chance for the senior class to see each other again, but also the faculty and staff, Deely said.

The last day people were at the school was cut short because of a severe weather warning, Deely said. “We didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”

The Senior Drive provided “a chance to physically see each other,” he said.

St. Cecilia honored its graduating class by having the faculty and staff deliver a dozen roses to each of its 62 seniors, while maintaining an appropriate social distance.

“They were surprised and blown away,” Crouch said. “The girls absolutely loved it. And the parents were really excited things like this were being done, something different and something unique for our school.”

The goal was “to show them we do love, we do care, we are planning, to give them some reassurance that things are happening,” Crouch said.

“It is so hard not to hug these seniors when you see them,” she said. “They just crave it.”

‘Trying for everyone’

The distance learning for the final two months of the academic year has been challenging.

“Parents are experiencing fatigue with learning at home, and we’re aware of that and trying to adapt what we’re doing,” Hammel said.

Photo courtesy of St. Cecilia Academy

“It’s gotten better over the weeks,” Wharton said. “The first couple of weeks were very trying for everyone.”

Teachers had to learn a different way of teaching on the run, she said. Her faculty had some good professional development on using technology in their lessons, but it didn’t prepare them for using it at the level they’ve been forced to, Wharton said.

“The teachers have worked their tails off, and I’m so proud of what they’ve done,” Wharton said. 

Participating in classes through video conferencing “can be exhausting,” Wharton said. “I’m proud of the kids.”

And parents have had challenges working from home while supervising their children, Wharton said. 

“You could see a lot of kids and families hit the wall,” Deely said. The challenge for teachers was to keep their students engaged and moving forward, he said.

“Schools had a responsibility to keep the kids engaged and doing something so their parents and the rest of society could figure out the big questions,” Deely said.

The pandemic may lead to changes in the way schools operate. 

“A lot of professions have had to reinvent themselves,” Deely said. “Teaching is one of those.”

“It’s been challenging, but I think it’s been good because it’s kicked us into doing some things we should be doing as far as using electronic learning more,” Wharton added. 

As an example, students could watch a video and then interact with the teacher while practicing the skills learned on the video, Wharton explained. “That’s something that we should be doing in the regular classroom. especially when you’re dealing with kids at different levels.”

When students return to the classroom, “It’s going to be really about the mental health,” Deely predicted. “I have no idea what this is going to do to all of us. …

“We want to be more prepared to handle families worn down by this experience,” he said. “We want to keep their minds hopeful and not worn down.”

Theresa Laurence contributed to this story.

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