Saturday, July 4, 2020

In Response to Covid-19, Diocesan Catholic Schools Embrace New Methods of Education

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As public schools across the nation adjusted their teaching methods in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, so too did Catholic schools across the Diocese of Gallup as administrators grappled with adopting new models of education.

“It’s so strange without the children here. It’s like the children give our building its life. And now it’s empty,” said Amy Jo Mulvaney, principal at Sacred Heart School in Gallup, NM.

Sacred Heart School, along with the ten other schools in the Diocese of Gallup, closed in mid-March, following directives from the diocese that catholic schools imitate state guidelines for New Mexico and Arizona public schools. With no students physically present, nearly every school in the diocese adapted by holding online meetings and classes, or by sending home weekly packets for students with limited internet access.

For many teachers, including some at Sacred Heart School, the online teaching model has taken some time to learn, but Mulvaney says her staff is up to the challenge.

“Everyone has their ups and downs. But what are we teaching students – if the teachers can’t learn new things, how can the students? That’s who we are. We are teachers. We don’t have to learn it perfectly, we just have to take a first step,” she said. “This is such an unusual time. I always say, we’re not going to do this [totally] right. But we do have to do our best. And it seems to be working pretty well.”

At St. Anthony School in Show Low, AZ, principal Bryan Yorksmith has also been working with teachers to continue classes since being shut down after Spring Break.

“That first week was kind of a transition week for us – I told parents that we just needed a little bit of time to get together and create a learning framework that we would have going forward,” Yorksmith said. He left it up to teachers to decide individually whether to use online teaching and meeting apps, or to send home weekly packets. “That first week went very well – I had some of my junior high teachers start scheduling classes every day, and so they’re meeting or teaching every day, kids are signing in and watching the lesson and answering questions – they’re using it full-bore. And so far, so good! It’s going well. I try to jump in sometimes on meetings to see if they need anything, technologically, or if there’s anything I can do to help.”

Yorksmith also held regular online meetings with parents in order to address any questions or concerns. And Mulvaney found weekly online meetings with her staff to be helpful, with certain blocks of time dedicated to group prayer and reflection.

St. Francis Catholic School in Lumberton, NM is situated in the territory of the Jicarilla Apache Tribe. Most students’ parents work for the tribe, and with the tribal government shut down, Principal Madeline Lyon has seen an increase in the involvement of parents in their childrens’ schoolwork. Even young students in Kindergarten were able to access lessons online with their parents’ involvement.

“The children at that age, they were just starting to read, and reading pretty well, and [the teacher] didn’t want to lose that, so she’s been working with them online, 2-3 times a week,” Lyon said. “There’s always a silver lining in every cloud – she’s finding she’s able to coach the parents on how to help their kids. And the parents are appreciating it, and I think even enjoying it. And that’s a real plus.”

Families without internet access, as with other diocesan schools, were able to receive home packets, and Lyon notes that in Lumberton, each family was accommodating of social distancing practices.

“When parents come we have a definite protocol – one person in at a time, and they’ve been very, very respectful of that method.”

For Sr. Marsha Moon, principal at St. Anthony School in Zuni, NM, social distancing was an even bigger concern for staff who work to accommodate students who have no access to computers or the internet. The school was able to provide many students with computers to take home, but some were still limited to calling in with teachers, who took turns using teleconferencing programs in the school classrooms.

The school is currently undertaking some renovations to make several classrooms larger, and is seeking donations through GoFundMe for the project.

“We’re going to be knocking down walls, literally, to make the rooms bigger, and then moving two classrooms into the administration building. So we’re doing everything we can so when we open it’s ready for social distancing.”

The principals reported that most students and parents were in good spirits despite the lockdowns, and many schools have undertook extra steps to provide aid and outreach to their families.

In Grants, NM, one young student from St. Teresa School was feeling disheartened that he wouldn’t be able to celebrate his birthday with his teacher and classmates, and so parents and students brought the celebration to him. With the help of a police escort, families gathered in their vehicles and paraded past the student’s house, honking and waving. Principal Angela Brunson recorded a message and sent it to the student – another facet of adapting to a school without students physically present.

Birthday parade for a student from St. Teresa School in Grants.

“It’s definitely been an adjustment, because we’re so much like a family and used to seeing each other every day,” Brunsen said. The school does run a daycare – a state-designated official service – which she describes as a big help for parents.

“All of [the children] are from households where the parents are working, either in the prisons or the mines or the medical field.”

Other Catholic schools similarly conducted activities or outreach efforts in order to help the families in their communities.

With no school meals needing to be prepared, St. Francis in Lumberton sent home its surplus of frozen food with parents as they came to pick up schoolwork packets. Lyon expressed her gratitude for the volunteers’ and visitors’ willingness to follow social distancing and safety practices.

“They’ve been very grateful and very respectful of the entire protocol. I’m just very proud of our parents…they’re stepping up to the plate as best they can.”

Many families in both Lumberton and Zuni are employed by their tribes, and as long as many tribal offices and programs are closed, the parents aren’t working. In Zuni, a lack of tourism has greatly affected many families.

“A lot of people here are silversmiths or pottery makers, and of course their business has shut down, so that’s a real hardship,” Sr. Marsha said.

The students in Show Low tackled several service projects, including a canned food drive for the local pantry and art projects for their community.

Students organize a local food drive in Show Low, AZ.

“They’re making cards for seniors in the local retirement homes – the ones that are isolated right now and not getting any visitors,” Yorksmith said. “And then the third thing we’re doing is, our kids are making posters and signs to display in our local hospital. Just to kind of lift spirits of hospital workers and let them know how much we appreciate all that they’re doing.”

A number of parents at schools throughout the diocese are health care workers, but none of the principals saw much of an impact on families’ physical health. They instead reflected on the potential short and long-term effects on their students’ mental health.

“I worry about the students because there’s a sense of fear. The teachers have all said they’re not really afraid, they’re a little anxious sometimes, but they’re not really afraid,” Sr. Marsha said, adding that she and the school’s pastor, Fr. Pat McGuire, regularly held meetings with the teachers and staff. “So far what I’ve heard from the teachers is there’s some anxiety, but they’re not really afraid, which is good. But the students I worry about, because I don’t know what they’re hearing, what they’re being told.”

And the possible financial impact of the pandemic is hard to ignore, as well. In Grants, St. Teresa School has had to make their annual fundraiser an online-only event.

“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” Brunsen said, “adjusting our finances and applying for any assistance that we can to help take the pressure off of families and doing our best to keep everything going so we’re ready for next year.”

But each principal was ultimately hopeful, expressing a commitment to the welfare of their students, families and staff members.

“We are continuing to pay all our staff,” Yorksmith said. “We had it in the budget, and so we’re able to pay all of our hourlies, all of our full-time employees.”

And despite any long-term social or economic effects of the virus, the schools remain committed to their mission: a high-quality education steeped in Catholic tradition.

“We’re still trying to remain a community of faith,” Sr. Marsha said. “We’re still trying to ensure that our students are learning, and that, God willing, we’ll be open in August.”

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