Parishes adjust religious education programs during COVID-19

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Karie Ferrell, director of faith formation at St. Mary Parish in Evanston, works in her office while waiting for families to come in to register for fall religious education classes on Aug. 15, 2020. While the parish plans to offer classes virtually, it will kick off the year with a car Mass on Aug. 29 for families. After Mass, families will pick up their materials for the year. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Like many things, religious education is going to look a bit different at parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago this year.

At St. Mary Parish in Evanston, the religious education year will start with a drive-in Mass in the parish parking lot on Aug. 29. As religious education families leave, they will receive tote bags with everything their children need to do religious ed at home, said Karie Ferrell, director of faith formation.

That includes their books, Bibles and rosaries, a cloth and battery-powered votive candle to set up a prayer table, and supplies like crayons and scissors.

“We wanted to do something to make it a little special for them,” Ferrell said. “Normally, they come into the classroom and see their friends and that’s a sacred space, but they can’t do that this year.”

That’s because St. Mary, like many other parishes, will do religious education completely virtually until at least January. Families have the option of signing up for the traditional program, in which students will meet with their classes in a videoconference at their usual Sunday morning and Monday evening class times, or a parent-directed program, in which parents will meet with catechists once a month to get an overview of the material and then take responsibility for teaching it to their children.

“We tried to think of everything,” said Ferrell. “But I’m sure there will be a thousand more bases to hit.”

Kevin Foy, director of the archdiocese’s Office for Lifelong Learning, said many parishes are choosing to keep religious education classes 100% virtual. Others are preparing to resume in-person classes, but on a much more limited basis.

The guidelines are similar to those for Catholic schools, he said, calling for students and teachers to wear masks, stay away if they are unwell and wash and sanitize hands and disinfect class spaces. Students and teachers will be put into cohorts to meet, but because the students will be coming from different schools, they still must remain 6 feet from one another. They also should not meet in person any more than once a month.

The guidelines also apply to youth groups, Foy said.

Parishes must complete a checklist and have their plans certified to begin in-person classes.

“What we really recognize is that the religious education cohort is not their primary cohort,” Foy said. “Students are coming from different schools and different districts with different reopening plans. We want to see and assess how effective they are reopening while containing the spread. If our measures and all the schools’ measures are effective, then we would see what measures could be eased.”

Foy said parishes have been urged to be creative. They could, for example, delay the start of religious education until several weeks after the school year starts, then continue into the summer, when they can take advantage of warmer weather to have classes meet outdoors.

Even parishes that opt for some in-person instruction might have online meetings in the weeks in between, Foy said, and they will be better prepared than they were in March when they had to pivot from doing everything in person to doing everything online with no notice.

Parish catechetical leaders have been meeting since the spring to share ideas, experiences and best practices, he said, and they have been working with catechists to help them get ready.

That has been the case at St. Ann Parish in Lansing. Sandra Bustamente, the director of religious education, said the catechists spent the month of June learning how to use Google Classroom and all its ancillary programs such as Google Docs and Google Forms.

“We were not prepared at the beginning at all,” Bustamente said, recalling the sudden shift from in-person to remote contact. “We used everything at our disposal — our website and Facebook page, emails and phone calls.”

For the fall at least, she said, catechists will present their lessons in online meetings with student participation. They also may have small group or one-on-one meetings with families.

“‘The only way to have this connection with the students is to actually see them,” Bustamente said. “We need to have a conversation with them. We need to have a connection with the families and the students.”

That, in fact, might be a silver lining for remote religious education, since parents are more likely to be present for at least the beginning of classes after helping their children get online, and will be at home and accessible while the program is going on.

“In past years, it was kind of like, ‘I’ll register my child and drop them off,’” she said. “We don’t see them until after the sacrament.”

That’s not ideal, she said.

“They are part of their kids’ education,” Bustamente said. “Parents are connected to what we do. If they want, they can stay for the whole class.”


  • religious education
  • coronavirus
  • covid-19
  • parishes reopen

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