Chicagoland

Catholic schools turn to virtual learning during COVID-19 crisis

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A screenshot of the virtual learning page at Old St. Mary's School, 1500 S. Michigan Ave. (Chicago Catholic)

To read this article in Spanish, click here.

More than 76,000 students in Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic schools are doing “school at home,” as the Office of Catholic Schools shuttered school buildings starting March 16 to help stem the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The move came with a huge effort on the part of school staff members, principals said. Staff members worked with technology platforms they were already using, quickly learned how to use other platforms, and in a matter of days, they were sending out lesson plans for everything from art to social studies.

At the same time, schools are trying to maintain a sense of community for teachers, staff and students even when they can’t all be together.

St. Linus School in Oak Lawn teachers are using everything from their existing blogs, Google Classroom, ClassDojo and the Remind app to keep in touch with students and parents, said principal Margaret Hayes.

St. Linus maintained its practice of having a student read morning announcements and leading prayer, said principal Maureen Hayes. The school started with eighth grade at the beginning of the academic year; when in-person classes were suspended, first graders were taking their turn.

With the help of video technology, they kept right on going, making it to kindergarten by the end of the first week. Each day’s video is posted at 8 a.m.

“They love the announcements,” Hayes said, adding that the school has received a lot of positive feedback from parents and students.

Morning announcements were set to start March 23 at Old St. Mary’s School, 1474 S. Michigan Ave., principal Diana Smith said.

For the first week of distance learning, teachers were able to upload digital lesson plans to a password-protected area of the school website March 16, said principal Diana Smith.

Students who needed them were allowed to take computers home so that everyone could be on the same page, she said, and the school has used Instagram to keep in touch with parents. Teachers and administrators have used Zoom to meet with one another, and some teachers are using the online meeting platform to interact with their students.

“We’re trying to help kids feel like they’re still seeing their teacher with as much virtual connection as possible, especially for the little ones,” Smith said. “For a school, that sense of community is important, and that’s especially true in a Catholic school.”

St. Stanislaus Kostka School Principal Michele Alday-Engelman said teachers with younger students in her school are working especially hard to make sure to communicate by video, reading books to students or just saying hello, and that that they miss them.

At St. Stanislaus Kostka, 1225 N. Noble St., faculty and staff spent this year working on an e-learning plan for snow days or other days the school would have to be closed, said Principal Michele Alday-Engelman.  She sent a copy of that plan home with students when they left on March 13.

“Because the teachers had a head start on it, this week they did a lot of continuing teaching or support of what they were doing in the classroom last week,” Alday-Engelman said on March 20. “I don’t know how that will change if this goes on the way it looks like it might.”

Meanwhile, teachers have been having virtual meetings with one another and with Alday-Engelman. They have also been responding to parents and students reaching out over email and social media.

“We were just as busy as we would be if we were in the building,” she said.

One thing parents have said to Alday-Engelman is that it can be difficult to get students to buckle down to work, especially when they were supposed to be learning at home for the week before spring vacation, which for St. Stanislaus Kostka is scheduled for March 23 to 27.

Meanwhile, the school is also working to find ways to encourage prayer. A religion teacher is sending prayers for all the classes, and Alday-Engelman is looking for ways to help students and teachers feel like they are worshiping together.

“Today’s the school Mass day,” she said March 20. “We’re not at Mass. If this goes on long enough, can we get our pastor to do a virtual Mass?”

School leaders from across the archdiocese said they are very much looking forward to when they can see their students and staff working together every day, even if they have developed new skills for using technology.

“It will prepare us better. We’ll be well-prepared for snow days,” Hayes said. “One of the things it’s showing is that o matter how wonderfully we’re doing this e-learning. Nothing beats the connection that you form by being face-to-face.”

Topics:

  • catholic schools
  • coronavirus

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