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Kenzie Berhorst, a third-grade teacher at St. Margaret of Scotland school, taught a lesson on Missouri during and after the Civil War. With schools closed until at least April 22, teachers are making use of online learning platforms to help students.
Kenzie Berhorst, a third-grade teacher at St. Margaret of Scotland school, taught a lesson on Missouri during and after the Civil War. With schools closed until at least April 22, teachers are making use of online learning platforms to help students.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kenzie Berhorst

Academics, faith formation and emotional well-being are at top of mind for Catholic educators implementing distance learning plans

Educators adopt digital tools to keep education on track

Like most teachers these days, St. Dominic High School math teacher Rachel Riechers is teaching with the aid of Google Classroom, Zoom video conferences and interactive video lessons via Edpuzzle.

Officials across the country have shut down schools to help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson announced March 22 that archdiocesan elementary and high schools will remain closed at least until Wednesday, April 22, pending continued guidance from local and state government and health officials.

While the school buildings may be closed, class is still very much in session. At St. Dominic, an archdiocesan co-ed high school in O’Fallon, Riechers teaches freshmen algebra and a math topics class for juniors and seniors. Students are already accustomed to participating in what they call “e-learning days” at home on snow days, using technology such as Google Classroom to work on assignments and communicate with teachers.

“It’s been an easy transition,” said Riechers, a 2010 St. Dominic alum who is in her first year teaching at the high school. “I can post assignments and video lessons, and they answer questions within the video. I’ve also been using Google Hangout to talk to my students.” She’s set up virtual office hours via Zoom video conferencing so she can interact with students face-to-face.

“It’s been going really well,” she said. “All of the kids have done a really good job with participating.”

Catholic schools in the archdiocese developed distance learning plans for their students. Schools considered factors such as the best approach for their particular school community, modifying learning objectives, assessing students and developing online resources.

Elementary school principals collaborated to develop learning plans. Elementary and archdiocesan high school principals also have been in regular communication with the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education and Formation for additional guidance.

Schools implemented numerous platforms for online learning, including recorded lessons on Zoom, IXL, iMovie, Seesaw and YouTube; assignments and communication via Google Classroom; and using supplemental online learning programs.

The Office of Catholic Education and Formation developed several resources, including a new website (www.catholicfaithstl.com) with learning resources for faith and academic formation; as well as family catechesis webinars.

At St. Patrick School in Wentzville, students stay connected through daily morning announcements recorded by principal Jill Gould and shared via the school’s Facebook page. Students also have participated in a virtual “spirit week,” with families posting pictures of their children participating in the day’s theme.

Like many others, St. Patrick teachers have eased students into their distance learning plan, communicating expectations up front and taking the first few days easy in order to allow families to settle into a new routine. “We wanted to tread lightly and don’t want people overwhelmed,” Gould said.

Gould said that while academics and faith formation have remained a priority, with teachers working “around the clock” to develop the school’s distance learning plan, just as important has been the students’ emotional well-being. Social media has been one way for school families to stay connected with teachers and staff, she said. Gould also has remained in regular contact with teachers just to check in on their emotional well-being, too.

“My heart hurts, just driving (to school) and seeing an empty parking lot,” she said. “If I can keep my teachers upbeat and help them take a step back and slow down — they are dedicating so much of their time. I told them, you have to find time for you, but we all know that’s hard. My every waking moment is my phone, my laptop, my watch. But everyone needs to stay healthy.”

The daily morning announcements that Gould posts on Facebook always include prayer. In the first week of distance learning, she told her students that “you have to remember that God is our constant. Everything is changing right now, but God is our constant. Without prayer, I can’t imagine how people are going through (life) right now.”

At St. Margaret of Scotland School in St. Louis, teachers moved to distance learning on March 17. The school did not have a spring break, and they had a delayed start to the school year because work to install a new air-conditioning system extended into August.

Like other elementary schools in the archdiocese, St. Margaret of Scotland communicated with other Catholic schools in their region to share ideas for developing a distance learning plan. Principal Clare Young said the first few days of distance learning were challenging for families and teachers as everyone sorted out a new routine. She surveyed parents about how students and parents were adjusting to learning at home.

Keeping school families connected also has been just as important, Young said. “The St. Margaret of Scotland community is really strong,” she said. More than 50% bike or walk to school. “There’s a lot of community interaction, and we suddenly didn’t have that anymore.” A parent suggested posting morning prayers to the school’s Facebook page. Young and assistant principal Melinda Yaklin recorded videos of them reciting prayers the first two days. After that, they handed it over to families, asking them to share their videos of leading prayers.

“We’re just trying to stay very positive with students and families,” Young said. “We’re all in this together, and we need to make sure our families are OK. The work will get done.”

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