By LYNN VENHAUS
As a global pandemic has changed American life in a matter of weeks, the three high schools and 26 elementary schools in the Belleville Diocese have had to quickly adapt. Several local administrators and teachers say they see positive outcomes in an unprecedented challenging time.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all public and private schools to close on March 16 through April 7. The Illinois State Board of Education deemed the first two weeks as “Act of God” days, which means they do not count as days of attendance. Therefore, grades are not allowed to negatively impact a student’s quarter or semester grades.
If the days are extended again, Diocesan Superintendent Jonathan Birdsong said he thinks e-Learning will be implemented, replacing the “Act of God” classification. This change would allow regular grading to resume.
Birdsong said teachers will keep doing what they have been.
“We will continue to serve our students and families no matter what constraints are placed on us. Our environment has changed but our mission and the service we provide to students and their families remain the same,” he said.
Birdsong acknowledged how unusual the circumstances have been as everyone adapts to new learning conditions.
“I would ask everyone to imagine someone coming into your place of work and expecting you to completely change the way you do everything and have that ready to go tomorrow. That’s what we did to our teachers a couple of Fridays ago and they have answered the call tremendously well,” Birdsong said. “I’m confident in saying that this would not be the case in many other instances.”
Birdsong said he is in daily communication with the principals via email, text and phone calls.
“We are discussing all different aspects of this unique situation. Principals are in constant communication with their teachers to offer support and ideas. They know that the other principals, the entire Department of Faith Formation and I are willing and eager to support their individual efforts.
We are taking an all-hands-on-deck and team approach to this shutdown and everyone is pulling in the same direction,” Birdsong said.
He said parents and educators must realize that students’ lives have been completely turned upside down.
“They have a lot on their minds, whether they verbalize that or not. They shouldn’t get away with doing nothing or making excuses, but some flexibility is helpful at home as well,” he said.
For distance learning, schools are using a variety of programs, including Schoology, Google Classroom and Zoom. Birdsong said each school has the flexibility to use whatever resources are most appropriate for their students, families and location.
The schools have been following general guidelines but teachers can have some leeway.
“Teachers have been encouraged to think outside of the box and be creative with what and how this should look. Creativity and flexibility are a must if we are going to best serve the students at this time,” he said.
For example, he said teachers have utilized Tik Tok, created singing videos, shared video prayers and reflections, connected the current COVID-19 situation to the importance of service opportunities, created a Children’s Liturgy of the Week with a parish priest, and other faith and education-focused lessons.
“Our teachers and principals have utilized many creative and educationally sound approaches to engage with students,” he said. “They are truly pushing themselves beyond their limits in this time of need.”
The new technology has allowed teachers to use television or movie-based activities, or students may be using video speeches for their presentations.
“Obviously, this is a work in progress for everyone around the country and the longer it lasts, the more creative solutions we will find. I believe this will serve as a wonderful learning experience for our teachers and principals that they can take with them in their classrooms and buildings moving forward,” Birdsong said.
“The other positive is that students are being asked to do things differently as well, and this experience is a great opportunity for them to expand their skillset, as well as learn how to solve problems in a real-life situation. There is no better educational experience than that,” he said.
Christina Howard, assistant principal at St. Clare School in O’Fallon, said the faculty, staff, parents and students are going above and beyond to make sure the students continue their learning and stay connected during this time.
“They have united together in ways we’ve never seen before,” she said.
St. Clare has one of the largest student bodies, with nearly 500 enrolled.
“Teachers are recording themselves teaching, interacting with students through Zoom, and utilizing Schoology, Microsoft Teams, Seesaw, Class Dojo, and many other apps to learn digitally,” Howard said. “Students are sending in videos of themselves learning, submitting work online to teachers, and sharing photos of themselves.”
Howard said teachers are developing new skills every day while they continue to learn and grow.
“We are confident that our school won’t just be different when we return — it’ll be better,” she said.
During this time of isolation and social distancing, staying connected is an important component, Howard said. So, they have incorporated a daily “Spirit Day” theme.
“We ask parents to share photos of their family via email or in the comments on the Facebook post each day. It’s so nice to continue to see everyone, even if it’s not in person,” she said.
“We have had lots of positive feedback and notes of appreciation and gratitude from our parents. We will continue to work hard to provide quality continued learning for our families,” she said.
Birdsong said some schools provided devices to students who were in need.
If a device was either not available or there wasn’t Wi-Fi available, schools took other measures to meet the needs of students.
“We are always looking for opportunities to better equip teachers and students,” he said.
After the shutdown happened, more training and professional development opportunities were made available to schools.
Schools who already had plans in place for distance learning were a bit ahead of the curve, Birdsong said.
Gibault Catholic High School in Waterloo has been using a learning management system and E-Learning days for seven years. They settled on Schoology for the 2016-2017 school year, because it offered enhanced features, said Kara Hoke, director of enrollment at Gibault.
She also teaches advanced and college-credited history. She said E-Learning is going well because of a basic comfort level for Schoology and remote learning that they already had. But added that because she teaches mostly college level courses, her experience with students submitting work might be different.
Because Illinois is using Act of God days, they cannot require students to login in, look at, or submit anything they post for them, or take grades.
“Nonetheless, I’ve had more students than I expected participate in the suggested learning activities I have posted. I think there are many reasons for this — our students understand the expectations and routines from the practice E Learning days we use in the fall and the cancellations due to inclement weather in the winter months. Our teachers also already have a few tools under their belts,” she said.
Hoke said she has been impressed with teachers’ adaptability and their lessons.
“Our biology teacher, Karen Asbury, figured out how to broadcast a DVD to her students using Microsoft Office’s Teams. Our P.E./yoga teacher, Lauren Stepp, created an Instagram-inspired yoga challenge for her students, where she posts a yoga pose each day and suggests the students take the pose and make it their own — and post their picture to the Schoology group.
Our Spanish teacher, Melisa Noles, suggested her seniors make a poster, write a journal, or create something else in Spanish that tells of their experiences during their senior service project,” she said.
The day seniors returned from their service projects was the last day of school before closing.
“So, it was great to see she crafted a medium for them to share their experiences. Many of our teachers are creating video recordings to deliver instructions and communicate with students, and encouraging students to upload audio or video comments, rather than typed, on class discussion boards,” she said.
She has noticed that the students are adapting well.
“Many are participating and submitting work. They are holding quality discussions with their peers, trying new activities, posting pictures, and so forth,” she said.
“We know long-term E Learning can’t look exactly the same as E-Learning on a day or two of bad weather, but I think we are up to the challenge!” she said.
Academics aren’t the only thing affected by the shutdown. High school rituals, such as the spring musical, have had to be postponed or cancelled.
Donna Goetz, who is directing “Cinderella” at Mater Dei High School, said they have not cancelled.
“Our principal, Dennis Litteken, is a huge supporter of the fine arts and has been bouncing around some dates to reschedule. Blake Korte recorded the pit orchestra before school closed and has provided the digital tracks for students to rehearse. I am also confident that the entire Mater Dei community will pitch in to help,” she said.
Birdsong said he is grateful parents understand the upheaval that’s been caused and is praying for everyone’s health and well-being.
“I would like to thank the families who have chosen to partner with one of our schools in the spiritual, educational and moral formation of their children,” he said. “All anyone can do is their best and that has to be good enough because no one in our lifetime has ever experienced anything like this.”