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Catholic schools turn to virtual learning during time of closure


Liam and Gabby Parnell, a first grader and preschooler at St. Paul School in Hingham, speak with their teachers via Google Meet. Courtesy photo

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BRAINTREE -- How do you keep a sense of normalcy in a time of crisis? How do you maintain a sense of community while physically isolated from friends, mentors, and colleagues? These are the questions that Catholic school communities have been wrestling with while transitioning to "remote learning" after schools were closed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

On March 13, Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, announced that all archdiocesan elementary and high schools would close for two weeks, from March 16 through March 27. Since then, Gov. Charlie Baker has ordered the shutdown of all public and private schools in Massachusetts until at least May 4.

Following Carroll's announcement, Catholic schools throughout the archdiocese quickly made plans for students to continue their studies at home with remote online instruction from their teachers and administrators.

Our Lady's Academy in Waltham already had some tools in place that helped the students and teachers transition to virtual learning. Many textbooks were already available online, and grades four through eight were already utilizing Google Classroom. The middle school students have laptops, and the school issued iPads for students who did not have the technology necessary to do their work from home.

"It's a new experience," principal Chandra Minor said in a March 20 interview. She said it has been "challenging, but a lot of fun too."


Some OLA teachers have been sending their students on "virtual field trips" in connection with their studies of science, history or culture. On March 20, Father James DiPerri, pastor of Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted Parish, invited students and their families to participate in a prayer service via Zoom video-conference software.

Even the preschool students are included as their teachers use Zoom to communicate lessons. They schedule rest time as though it were a normal day at school.

Assistant principal Mark Daley, who used to work for the Catholic Schools Office, said they are setting up weekly faculty meetings so teachers can support each other and collaborate in lesson planning. In doing so they hope to create a "more standardized" curriculum and take some pressure off teachers, who are working more hours than usual in this model.

"It's a learning experience but I think a lot of progress was made this week. Next week will be that much easier," Daley said on March 20.

Before the closure was announced, Lisa Fasano, principal of St. Paul School in Hingham, prepared by setting up a new learning management system. On March 16, she met with teachers to discuss expectations of students, parents, and teachers. The following day, parents came to pick up materials the students would need. They made sure all middle school students had Chromebooks to work on.

"I have had to really shift my mindset to think strategically and to be as communicative as possible," Fasano said.

She said she has been in touch with every teacher and checking on students and parents to make sure they use the technology effectively.

"As we do it each day it's getting easier," Fasano said.

On March 24, Fasano held four "cookies and milk" student meetings via Google Meet, taking time to talk with students from all 10 classes. She also created a three-week calendar of "Principal Challenges" with some of her favorite childhood activities: planting seeds, hopscotch, making bookmarks and puzzles.

Several teachers at St. Paul School have been creating videos to share with their students. Middle school science instructor Jennifer Lightfoot started a bi-weekly video series called "Outdoor Discoveries" encouraging students to explore their yards and neighborhoods. Art instructor Jackie Bruno started a video series named ''At Home Art" with step-by-step instructions for projects involving materials that are easy to find at home. School librarian Jenny Montgomery has taped herself reading a children's story each day.

"I'm really proud of my school community and the teachers and students, and for all that we did in a short time," Fasano said.

The faculty and staff of Fontbonne Academy, an all-girls college preparatory high school in Milton, began planning a distance learning management system several days before the closure was announced. They had already scheduled a professional development day on March 13, and ended up using that day to train faculty and staff to use Google Hangouts and Google Meet.

"At Fontbonne, relationship is at the heart of our mission," director of communications Lisa Simmons said March 23.

"Even though we're not in the building together, and we're all in separate places, that mission still remains the same, and we are all working together to keep it going, to keep us all connected, to keep our community going and thriving," she said.

Fontbonne Academy chose to use Google-based programs for organization and collaboration, since the students and faculty were already familiar with the Google format used for their email system. The school purchased digital hotspots for students who do not have Internet access in their homes.

Director of technology Michelle Shaw's focus has been educating both teachers and students in troubleshooting problems with technology. Through screen sharing, Shaw has been teaching them how to handle problems that they would probably ask someone else to deal with if they were in the school building.

"I'm kind of shocked at how easily I'm able to train people from far away," Shaw said.

Initially, the Fontbonne Academy faculty tried to have students go through an hourly schedule similar to a normal school day. By the end of the week, however, they realized this was "challenging and exhausting" for both teachers and students. Moving forward, they plan to use Wednesdays as a "day off" for grading, lesson planning, and providing extra help.

Shaw said she has been "impressed with the use of technology to keep the community of Fontbonne alive."

Each morning, the student council officers make a video that they share with the school community, starting the day with prayer, announcements, words of encouragement, and recommendations for movies, music, and activities to do while homebound.

"I think we have shown that you can still feel like a community even though you're in a distant setting," Fontbonne Academy principal Maura Spignesi said.

She said parents have sent her emails thanking her for making remote learning feel "normal."

"To keep normalcy in a time of crisis, and to be calm and communicating effectively in a time of crisis, they have found that to be really comforting, and they've noticed that their girls are feeling very comforted by that, because there is so much unknown right now. And so for us as a Catholic school we feel strongly that we need to be that force of peace and hope right now," she said.

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