Elementary Schools Finish Year with Online Classes — and Creativity

Stephen Mangione Around the Province

This article is part of a series about how the social distancing guidelines put into place in March, when the coronavirus broke out in the United States, affected aspects of life. Previous articles described the pandemic’s impact on Mass and prayer, college teaching, fraternal life, and outreach to people in need.

With little time to switch to remote lessons when schools were shut down during the coronavirus outbreak, teachers at Catholic schools across the country – those that are part of parishes where Holy Name Province friars provide pastoral and administrative services – found innovative and creative ways to adapt traditional classroom instruction to virtual platforms.

Their resourcefulness of incorporating the routine of the school day into distance learning maintained the sense of normalcy that children needed in a world turned upside down.

Students were equally resilient and inspired, adjusting to online learning with enthusiasm and an eagerness to discover, absorb, and achieve. Families, too, accommodated new roles amidst their suddenly chaotic environments, having to juggle parenting, keeping a watchful eye on their children’s progress, and working remotely.

Despite these COVID-19-induced unprecedented changes to the delivery of education – forcing schools to finish the 2019/20 academic year remotely – the new normal for teaching and learning produced stories of inspiration and encouragement at Franciscan schools in North and South Carolina, Virginia, and New Jersey.

Principals described how faculty, staff, students, and families responded to the extraordinary challenge of virtual classrooms replacing school buildings. They demonstrated that no challenge was too overwhelming for the human spirit – and true to the spirit of Franciscan ideals, they became living proof that amidst the darkness of this pandemic, there are stories of hope.

Biggest Challenge Proved Greatest Inspiration in Greenville
One day in April, families of St. Anthony of Padua School in Greenville, South Carolina, poured into the school’s parking lot for a curbside pick-up of free surplus produce and meat. They drove away with much more than food.

As thousands of machine-produced fluttering bubbles disappeared into the sky, teachers lined the parking lot and welcomed students and their parents with shout-outs and handmade posters scrawled with words of inspiration. Pat Tuttle, OFM, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish and amateur DJ, spun his music. It was the lift that students needed after being one month into remote learning.

“Everyone got very emotional when they drove into the parking lot and saw their teachers and Fr. Pat,” said school principal Mary Margaret Martin.

The school received a truckload of fresh and frozen food that is part of the federally funded program that supplies breakfast and lunch to school children living at or below the poverty level. Volunteers packed boxes for 125 families.

“It was something we all needed. Parents were equally grateful for the food and the fun way we distributed it,” said Martin.

“Student nutrition was a concern because the school is an extension of their home,” said Martin, adding, “We feed children two nutritious meals a day. With the building closed, we arranged for families to pick up pre-packaged, to-go meals at the public schools in their zip codes. The friars have also been reaching out to families when a relative needs prayers, or when a family needs extra food or help to pay an electric bill.”

Teachers at St. Anthony of Padua School show they miss their students. (Photo courtesy of Susan Cinquamani)

The school rolled out its remote learning platform in stages, with virtual classes fully launching in week three. Switching to remote education presented the challenge of setting up households with adequate technology. Teachers quickly assembled learning packets for the first two weeks, giving enough time to the administration to appropriately outfit each family with iPads, tablets or laptops. The school paid cable bills and purchased hot spots to ensure that all students had access to the Internet.

“The biggest challenge also provided the greatest inspiration. Everyone demonstrated a cooperative spirit and willingness to do what it took to overcome the challenges. A grandmother told me she never could have imagined herself learning how to use an iPad, but she did for the sake of the three grandchildren she’s raising,” said Martin, adding, “What could have been an ugly situation turned out to be a blessing in many ways.”

The principal set expectations to maintain a structured learning environment, requiring students to sit at a table in a quiet room during virtual classes, raise their hand instead of shouting out a question, and meet assignment deadlines. The virtual school day started with prayer and other routines that normally took place in the classrooms. Mornings consisted of three 40-minute academic classes and afternoons involved related-arts classes, such as Spanish, religion, music, art, and physical education. Fridays were reserved for project-based STEM curriculum, combining math, science, and other disciplines.

“We wanted to keep remote learning consistent with what students were accustomed to in their classrooms,” said Martin, who went to the school daily to coordinate administrative and other school business, such as processing registration applications of current and new students, and managing assignment drops and pickups between parents and faculty.

“Our teachers really knocked it out of the park. They allocated time for each student every afternoon. Those who needed extra help were put into small-group virtual learning environments,” added Martin, who has been principal at the pre-k through grade six school since 2018.

In place of their canceled end-of-year trips, some classes took virtual tours of the Vatican and White House; second-graders culminated their lesson on currency with a virtual trip to the U.S. Treasury, and another class that was learning how to cultivate beans took a virtual tour of a farm.

With many parents working on the frontlines at hospitals and essential businesses, live virtual classes weren’t always in sync with their schedules. Therefore, all classes were recorded so parents could work with their children at any time of the day. Martin implemented the academic buddies initiative, which had office staff checking in with their assigned students two or three times a week during 20-30-minute phone calls. They monitored their school work, determined if they needed extra help, asked how they and their families were managing, and provided challenging assignments.

“Sometimes they just did a ‘hang-out’ chat,” said Martin. “It was a way to stay connected with students beyond the classroom. “Families appreciated everything that we did.”

Faith, Familiar Faces and Photos in Durham
After classroom learning was moved to their homes, students at Immaculata Catholic School in Durham, North Carolina, were asked to share photos of their new learning environments. Every week, students posted images – some with their pets and siblings, and others while they were eating a bowl of cereal, working on an art project, or playing in their yard. It was a simple task, but probably as important as a science lab or writing assignment because it kept students connected to their classmates.

“It helped with the social-emotional component that we are all going through,” said principal Dana Corcoran. “It would be easy for anyone, especially children, to get lost in times like this. But our faith, and the familiar faces of people who care about us, provided comfort.”

Students at Immaculata Catholic School during happier, less socially-distanced times. (Photos courtesy of the parish’s Facebook page)

“We are blessed to have a phenomenal faculty and staff that cares so much – and our students demonstrated tremendous resiliency. Everyone pulled together in a way that we have never seen before. The pandemic has shown that we are here for each other,” she added.

Even with well-planned contingencies in place at the pre-k to eighth-grade institution, it took an extraordinary effort in a short span of time to transition from a classroom-designed curriculum to a distance learning platform.

“We implemented an asynchronous, at-home learning platform to help families balance school work, jobs, and technology-sharing,” said Corcoran, noting that the school’s technology department provided continuous tech support to students and teachers.

The principal said that the most difficult challenge was matching the school’s high expectations of its students with a realistic level of help that parents could provide to their children amidst their own work.

“One of the first things we thought about was equality – the resources that would be available to students who come from all different backgrounds. We provided extra computers to households with multiple children, and we helped secure free Internet for families. We also assigned a mentor to each family, which was especially helpful to those with language barriers,” she said. “The collective effort enabled the school community to stay engaged and connected.”

With student involvement in STEM projects and computer programs, the transition to live-streaming classes was smooth, not only for conventional subjects but also for specials like art, music, and physical education. Students were provided with opportunities for health and fitness challenges, and with virtual activities, such as painting with their art teacher.

Teachers provided 4 to 5 hours a day of combined real-time instruction and recorded lessons, as well as small group time and virtual office hours for students who needed extra help. There were also sessions for students in the gifted and special education programs. All lessons were recorded so that parents were able to access them with their children at a time that fit their schedules.

“Teachers delivered a high quality of instruction and students completed their work at the level we expected. We held virtual meetings at night for parents, and our guidance department offered information on structuring their children’s day, and maintaining a schedule and keeping them organized,” Corcoran said.

“Our science teachers did labs in real-time from their kitchens, social studies teachers gave cross-curricular lessons, and others used STEM curriculum that integrated history, math and the economy to help students understand the current world around them,” she added.

To maintain structure and continuity, much of the school day was incorporated into the remote experience. The school posted on social media platforms pre-recorded videos of Friday prayer, Gospel readings, and family-led morning announcements – and friars, such as Christopher Van Haight, OFM, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, live-streamed a weekly Mass for the school community. The faculty implemented most planned events virtually – among them Spirit Week, a student art show, a Mother’s Day tea party for kindergartners and their moms, and moving up ceremonies for pre-k and kindergarten students.

The faculty and staff socialized virtually by holding dinner nights, chats over coffee, and other weekly get-togethers. “It was nice to laugh and share stories, and just see everyone relaxing together,” said Corcoran, who expressed gratitude for the support of the pastor and friars.

“One of the big reasons we succeeded was the trust and confidence that Fr. Chris placed in me and our faculty and staff. He is always encouraging and accommodating, but he was especially supportive during this difficult time – and that enabled us to meet the needs of our school community,” Corcoran said.

Same Storm, Different Boats in Raleigh
For The Franciscan School in Raleigh, North Carolina, the transition to virtual learning was less of a challenge than the challenges posed by having to adapt to the different situations of families, according to Michael Watson, principal of the pre-k to 8th-grade school.

“It didn’t take us long to go from the face-to-face experience to 100 percent virtual because our faculty uses a lot of technology in the classroom. The biggest hurdle was understanding the different situations at home – a parent working remotely and sharing space with an 8th grader, or both parents that are medical professionals with twin kindergarteners,” Watson explained.

Students of The Franciscan School take classes remotely. (Photo courtesy of Mike Watson)

“Everyone says we are in the same boat, but that’s not exactly true. We are in the same storm, but some are in rowboats and others are on cruise ships and everything in between. While many parents wanted us to do 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. virtual school, that wasn’t realistic because everyone was experiencing the fallout of this pandemic to different degrees of personal impact and ability to respond,” said Watson.

“People were balancing home and work, and there was the issue of availability of devices and technology,” he added. “We had to be understanding and appreciative of these different situations, including those of our own faculty members.”

With that in mind, the school assembled a cohesive and academically appropriate educational experience for all students. Its longstanding tradition of parental partnership came into play, as faculty utilized feedback from families to adjust and improve the virtual learning experience throughout the process.

“This has been an inspiring experience. Students have recognized their innate ability to handle any ‘curveball’ that comes their way. This was an enduring confidence builder and revelation of character for all of our students” Watson said. “For our 8th graders in particular, hopefully, they won’t remember missing out on the traditional commencement, but rather that they met difficult challenges and achieved success.”

He added, “Despite the loss of personal connection, students and teachers proved they could withstand body blows. They came out of this stronger and better as a school community.”

Teachers found that it was easier to teach 25 students in the confines of a classroom environment than the new normal of electronic learning.

Students at The Franciscan School express their gratitude to the teachers of the school. (Photo courtesy of Mike Watson)

“Things changed drastically,” said Watson. “Our faculty members were asked to work harder, providing online office hours and virtual classes. They were asked to let go of the conventional things they knew. There weren’t as many assignments and tests, and they had to assess students outside of the normal parameters. But they rose to the occasion. I heard nothing but positive and encouraging comments from our parents.”

Reflecting on distance learning, Watson said it was an experience that was too much to ask children to absorb, and too much for adults to comprehend. “You’re a 1st grader, or a 5th or 8th grader, only once. This experience took away time that they should’ve been spending with their classmates and teachers – and at lunch and recess where relationships are built. But everyone around the world was going through this,” he said.

The principal went to the school daily, participating in virtual meetings with other Catholic school principals and performing a number of administrative responsibilities. He was on hand when families needed to replace a malfunctioning Chromebook, children dropped off their assignments, or teachers needed to put together work packets.

Popular on Facebook were Watson’s posts of videos shot with his iPad from different parts of the school – for example, playing the xylophone in the music room, leading morning prayer in the courtyard with Steve Patti, OFM, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, and taking shots into the net on the soccer field with Jim Sabak, OFM, associate pastor.

In April, the school rolled out virtual earth week to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, suggesting different daily activities – from planting vegetable seeds and making backyards more inviting to birds and small mammals, to eating dinner by candlelight and turning off lights for one hour a day. Spirit week was another planned event that proceeded virtually.

“These things not only continued routines and kept students connected to the campus, but they also allowed us to maintain our sense of community, which is the touchstone and strength of our school,” Watson said.

On June 5, the end of year celebration of TFS was posted on the Facebook page of The Franciscan School.

Imagination Helped Bridge Conventional to Virtual in Triangle
In the early days of remote education, a 2nd-grade teacher at St. Francis of Assisi School in Triangle, Virginia, showed up at the homes of each of her students. With an easel and dry-erase board in tow – and proper social-distancing – she taught lessons from lawns and porches. She traded work packets for homework assignments left at doorsteps. It took time, but she eventually recorded instructional videos, composed slideshows and reading tests, and conducted online meetings with her students.

A student of St. Francis of Assisi School in Triangle, Virginia, working from home. (Photo courtesy of  Liz Orille)

A middle school team leader and literature teacher never had a home computer or the Internet, but the pandemic changed everything, including her view of technology as a teaching resource. She found that remote teaching created greater opportunity for one-on-one instruction and that students were more inclined to ask questions and participate during virtual classes.

“Most teachers were used to conventional methods and some had hardly used technology up to that point. But despite this radical change, they enthusiastically embraced the moment and met the challenge. It exemplified how our entire school community came together for our students in the Franciscan Catholic tradition,” said Tricia Barber, principal of the pre-k to 8th-grade school whose student population consists of a large number of households whose parents are employed by government agencies and branches of the military.

Some teachers were challenged in different ways, such as the middle school science coordinator with six children, whose husband works at the Pentagon. In addition to her parenting responsibilities and helping her children with their schoolwork, she provided a robust remote curriculum for her students, offering daily live and recorded posts, announcements, and lab demonstrations.

“The environment was anything but normal,” said Barber. “Parents were telecommuting and all school-age children in a household were learning from home. It was important to create an environment of normalcy for students. We asked them to designate learning space they could call their own, where they could keep their books and supplies and do their schoolwork. They were so proud of their space and were eager to share photos that we posted online. This was a way of staying connected with their friends.”

A student of St. Francis of Assisi School in Triangle, Virginia, remote learning. (Photo courtesy of ???)

The transition was almost seamless since most students were fortunate to have Internet and an electronic device of their own at home. Students said that remote learning made them feel more responsible.

“It made them take ownership of their education. They enjoyed working at their own pace and setting their own schedule for learning. But if given the choice, they all would’ve rather been in their classrooms,” said Barber, who noted that she never could have imagined spending part of her 25th year as principal of the school in an empty building.

Like many principals, she arrived at 6:30 every morning to provide remote support to faculty members, assemble materials from files and classrooms for teachers and students, coordinate food donations for the St. Francis House pantry, and participate in video conferences with the Diocese of Arlington.

Teachers maintained classroom consistency – for example, a 4th-grade teacher who held live classes so students could be together virtually, and a 5th-grade teacher who talked to her students in video-recordings that mimicked classroom lessons, complete with prompts that gave them time to write answers to her virtual questions. Some teachers ended the school year with virtual class trips to some of the world’s most culturally rich international destinations, such as Egypt and China, as well as domestic historical treasures like Williamsburg and Jamestown.

One of the bright spots during the shutdown were virtual Masses, which a former student helped set up for live-streaming, that were celebrated by the friars of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, including pastor John O’Connor, OFM. Barber said that virtual attendance was amazing, as participants not only included current families but also former families and students from around the country who still hold a special place in their hearts for the school.

Another inspirational moment came after the cancellation of the spaghetti dinner and fellowship, the school’s biggest annual fundraising event. “The dinner was canceled, but the silent auction was held online. Parishioners who don’t normally attend the dinner participated in the auction – which was one of our most successful events. It was an amazing display of support for what we do at our school,” Barber said.

Dissecting a Cow’s Eye and Cultivating Beans from a Distance – Together – in Pompton Lakes
Students at St. Mary’s School in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, experienced many of the routines that had been part of their daily academic life before the pandemic outbreak. Although delivered virtually on smart devices – students who didn’t already have a Chromebook were provided with one – they continued to participate in morning prayer and announcements, spirit days, Wednesday Mass, and other practices that maintained a measure of normalcy.

An online class at St. Mary’s School in Pompton Lakes. (Photo courtesy of ???)

“Staying connected with teachers and classmates was important at a time like this – and although we were communicating from a distance, keeping routines and continuity helped us maintain the school culture of community and excellence in learning,” said principal Heather Schnaars.

Even for the most veteran faculty members, it was like teaching for the first time. “It was new to everyone. Our teachers really used their creativity to keep it interesting and exciting so that our students stayed engaged,” the principal said.

Getting creative meant having 7th graders, who had just completed their unit chapter on the nervous system, virtually attend a dissection of a cow’s eye broadcast in real-time from the Liberty Science Center, an interactive museum and learning complex in Hudson County, N.J. For pre-k students, it meant receiving a box of seeds to grow at home because they had to abandon the mystery seeds they had planted in the classroom (spoiler alert: they were all vegetables).

Fourth graders did live class chats, reading their original poems and sharing their poetry binders with classmates. A 6th grader came up with the idea of a flashback in sports history as part of the morning announcements. Teachers recorded video lessons and instructional how-to presentations – for example, how to solve math problems – just as they would do in the classroom. A kindergarten teacher arranged for a family in Spain to read a book to her class on the feast of St. George, the patron saint of that country.

John Aherne saying a virtual Mass. (Photo courtesy of ???)

Schnaars said that one of the positive things to emerge during the pandemic was how the school community pulled together. “It was amazing what our teachers accomplished. They put their hearts and souls into everything they did. They contacted families to see how they were doing. It was equally amazing how students and parents met the challenges of these difficult times,” said the principal, who held monthly virtual meetings with faculty and staff.

The biggest challenge was fitting the virtual academic school day into the schedules of parents, many who worked remotely from home or were on the frontlines in hospitals and other essential positions.

“Parents couldn’t always help their children during school hours, so our teachers would reach out to help families navigate the challenge of finding the balance between their jobs and helping their children. Many of our teachers found themselves in that same balancing act,” said Schnaars, herself the mother of a pre-k and 2nd-grade student.

Although First Holy Communion was postponed from its original May 2 date, the school held a virtual version of the traditional prayer service – a celebration of light — that usually takes place a week before the sacrament. On May 2, John Aherne, OFM, also held a live-streamed blessing of a piece of bread that each of the first communicants was asked to hold in their hands. John’s random drive-by greetings – some of them for birthdays – were also a popular distraction for families.

Parish friars were “wonderfully creative” with technology while the school session was being completed remotely, according to Schnaars, highlighted by the weekly school Mass and the virtual children’s choir that sung the recessional hymn at a live-streamed Easter Sunday Mass, when the music ministry put together video clips provided by the parents of 49 students.

Children at the pre-k to 8th-grade school looked forward to the live-streamed book readings, which had a surprise presenter – either a friar or teacher – each time. Schnaars led off the initiative, followed by John, who selected “Curious George” because it was his favorite book as a child.

“When they look back on this, I hope our children will remember the good things – the virtual tea parties, impromptu drive-by greetings, and book readings,” Schnaars said.

Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today, Jocelyn Thomas provided research for this article.

Editor’s note: Due to insurmountable financial deficits and declining enrollment, St. Mary’s School has announced that it would be closing permanently at the end of June.