After a sudden shutdown in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, schools throughout the nation scrambled to implement distance learning for teachers and students. Catholic schools were no different, and in the Diocese of Gallup, principals and teachers are adapting to new teaching methods as the 2020-2021 school year begins.
Almost no two schools in the diocese are alike. Spread across various tribal lands, counties, and two states, each principal and his or her staff have confronted unique challenges in order to serve students, virtually or in-person.
St. Anthony School in Zuni and St. Joseph School in San Fidel both serve Pueblo students, and with Pueblos still on lockdown, each school is opening with all classes held online.
“We made a choice for online because we’re following the direction of the pueblos,” said Antonio Trujillo, principal of St. Joseph School. His staff members have spent their summer learning to use Google classroom and other online teaching applications. Because some families have limited internet access, his school is also offering conference calling.
“The most important thing is the emotional well-being of our families and meeting those needs first. Once those needs were met, we felt that they would be receptive of doing the work that we were going to ask them to do to help their children stay at grade level.”
In Zuni, the summer at St. Anthony School was spent in part on classroom renovations to accommodate the students’ eventual return, although like San Fidel, the school year has started entirely online.
At St. Francis School in Lumberton, NM, located near the Jicarilla Apache reservation, principal Madeline Lyon and her three teachers are also currently offering classes entirely online.
“A lot of these families, it’s three generations in a household. So for the safety of everyone – our students, their families, us – we opted for distance learning,” Lyon said. Thanks to the CARES Act, passed by Congress earlier in 2020, the school obtained funding to purchase computers and internet hotspots for each student.
“We’re learning to work with the kids and get things done,” Lyon said. “The kids have been wonderful so far. I have 7th and 8th grade, and they’ve been super.”
In Gallup, Grants, and Farmington, schools welcomed students in-person – although attendance in currently capped at 50% capacity.
“We’re taking all the precautions recommended by the CDC, and we have to follow CYFD regulations since we have childcare here,” said Angela Brunson, principal of St. Teresa School in Grants. Desks for her students are spaced six feet apart, everyone receives temperature checks and wears a mask, and common areas are disinfected frequently. Because some students live at one of the nearby Pueblos or with a high-risk family member, the school also offers distance learning for some families.
“We just have to take everything slow and have patience…just try to do the best that we can for the students,” Brunson said.
At Sacred Heart School in Farmington, every single student has come back for classroom learning. Principal Rosalia Beyhan and her staff prepared over the summer for coronavirus precautions.
“Some of [the parents] were a little apprehensive and wanted to know exactly what our protocols were,” Beyhan said. “Once we told them everything that we were doing, that we were taking temperatures, we had all of the staff tested, and just the different things that we have in place, the parents were ecstatic. And the kids were even more happy. They are so happy to be here.”
Currently only the middle school students are able to attend Mass, but the school’s chaplain, Fr. Tim Farrell, streams Mass on Facebook for the rest of the students and staff to watch each week.
“It’s harder for our little kids, because they want to get up and hug you and things like that, but it’s amazing how well they have adjusted,” Beyhan said.
Despite the varied teaching methods, Trujillo said he feels well-connected to and supported by the Diocese and his fellow principals.
“One of the things that’s always been good about the Catholic Church is it’s always meeting the spiritual and emotional needs of the people first,” he said. “The teachers miss their students and the students miss their teachers. If there’s anything the pandemic did – we took for granted that relationship. And now we don’t take that for granted anymore.”