A New Day in Education Dawns as Coronavirus Forces Schools to Close

by Patrick J. Buechi
Mon, Apr 20th 2020 11:20 am

With very little warning all Catholic schools in the Diocese of Buffalo were temporarily closed March 17 due to an outbreak of the coronavirus. This forced schools to rethink how they educate their students. One school, Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School, decided to simply end the school year early after seeing that the South Buffalo school had already surpassed state requirements for the year. 

Other schools continue to provide education through distance learning, a method of study in which classes are conducted over the internet, without the students physically meeting in a classroom with their teacher. Schools are using online resource tools such as Zoom, Google Classroom, Google Meets, Seesaw and Schoology to give the students online instruction and interactive classroom settings to have real lessons as traditional as possible. Some schools are replicating the regular class schedule, even including morning prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance.

The staff at St. Christopher School in Tonawanda had a feeling something much like Gov. Cuomo's stay at home order would happen. On March 13, as students were preparing to leave for weekend, they were told to take everything home from their desks and lockers ... just in case.

The following Monday and Tuesday, the teachers came in to mobilize. Keeping a safe distance while meeting, they formed a plan to keep in touch with each other and their students as they all worked from home. Faculty meetings now take place as Zoom conferences. 

"We talked about the delivery of instruction. How are we going to do this? What's our goal?" explained Dr. Camille Pontrello, principal.

The first step in this type of situation is to offer packets of review work to students. This works on a short-term basis as it helps students retain what they have already learned, but it does not teach anything new. 

"A packet will basically keep a student or a learner where they are, but it will not advance them," Pontrello said. "There's no new learning. This was a big concern. How do we keep our children learning?"

With the mindset that they would not be going back to in-class instruction, they launched the online class management systems Google Classroom and Seesaw, where a syllabus and resources could be found.

"When I teach a course, my students all go to this site. Their names are all in it. We communicate through our own email within that little course site. Any videos I want to put up, and articles I want to put up, my syllabus; it's all there for them," Pontrello explained.

Now, the plan involves rolling out the classwork incrementally, allowing parents and children to learn how to learn online. During week, two Zoom Classes and Zoom Bedtime Stories began. The school's YouTube channel now carries prerecorded lessons, so they can fit into the family's schedule.  

"There are some parents who work all day, so we have to be mindful that children are not allowed to be on their devices until they get home from work, (they may be) doing this work after school," Pontrello said. "We're doing a combination of live teaching. Direct instruction is the key. If you want children to learn new material, you need to teach it. There is a very big difference between assigning work and teaching new content. That's where we are right now at St. Chris'. We want to teach new content moving forward."

Just after Holy Week, they moved into the next level by providing families with the tools they would need for comfortable learning online. The staff setup the St. Chris Drive Up Window where parents drove up to the school and picked up Chromebooks. The school specifically reached out to large families to make sure each student had their own device.

"We're pretty excited about this. In the face of all this stuff, the one thing we're thinking is, we need to keep these children learning," said Pontrello.

Pontrello thinks of her own children, now in high school, when planning the new distance learning format. She recalls the first time she realized learning was too fast paced to take her kids out of class for even a three-day trip. "Think of how much instructional time is being lost at this time. The catch up will be incredible," she said.

Nardin Academy, which has four schools under its banner, has all its students in a distance learning format. "Imagine thinking through what that looks like for kids of all ages," school President Marsha Sullivan said. 

"They were up and running day one," Sullivan said of the four principals who handle Montesori, elementary, middle school and high school students. "Our faculty has been able to keep the students completely on schedule, relative to curriculum, so they're not losing any academic progress through this."

Students in the Montessori school and kindergarten through third grade have some Zoom instruction and some instruction delivered through other websites or YouTube videos prerecorded by Nardin teachers. These can be accessed with the help of parents. The younger kids have a shorter than average school day because they should not have too much time in front of a computer screen.

For all other grades, there is one device per student, which allows for a complete interactive learning experience for those students. High school students go through normal class day beginning at 8:15 a.m. 

 "Because we are in this wonderful environment of having the advantage of years and years of one-to-one technology; these kids have been able to do a complete course curriculum all the way through June, either from home if they have to, or if we go back to school they pick up right where they are. That continuity has been really a point of pride we have in our faculty," said Sullivan. "It's challenging because it's new, but I think that we were lucky enough to have had that preparation on deck."

The Nardin staff is prepared to continue distance learning until the end of the school year, but hopes to return to the classroom. The high school graduation scheduled for May 18 could be postponed, but Sullivan is hopeful that the eighth-grade graduation scheduled for early June will go one as planned. No decision has been made thus far.

Denis Coakley, ninth-grade religion teacher at Nardin Academy, find himself more exhausted after three and a half hours of teaching online than he was after nine hours in the classroom. The hard part of distance learning for him is making sure that the students are absorbing the information. It's hard to tell if a student is following along when you can only see them through a 15-inch screen. It's even harder if other people are sharing that viewing space. 

"When there is the barrier of a screen, you can't necessarily tell what they are working on, you can't really tell where their focus is, what they're paying attention to," he said.

Instruction is delivered both in Zoom, where students can see their teacher and they can communicate back and forth, and Schoology where assignments are listed along with resources. Schoology has been used at the school for years, but teachers took a crash course with Zoom once they knew the school would be temporarily closing.

The school day has only changed slightly.

"The girls stick to their regular daily schedule. When they normally would have class, that's when they're supposed to be on with the teachers that they have. We're trying to make the assignments a little more independent study types. A challenge that we're facing is internet conductivity," Coakley explained, adding that poor weather has caused some Southtowns students to have spotty internet connections. "There are a few that it is a struggle for, but at Nardin we also provide them with their own Chromebooks. So, they have the equipment, but depending what part of the area you're in, sometimes access is difficult."

He calls the school's tech department a "Godsend." The students themselves help out a lot with the technology. "They're better with technology than I am," Coakley chuckled.  

Teachers at Immaculate Conception School in East Aurora are using prepared packets for review and Zoom to teach new material. Email and dropboxes are used to hand in schoolwork. The school has also incorporated a lot of YouTube into its study, not only created by the teachers, but by the students as well. 

Eighth-graders have traditionally done a living Stations of the Cross at Immaculate Conception Church. This year they did it from their homes.

"We gave them each a part to read, then our youth director was able to put it together and provide that as a YouTube video as well," explained Principal Joseph Duttweiler. 

Music teacher Glenn Colton sent a request to his students for pictures of what they have been doing at home since the stay at home order has been in place. He's using those photos and stories to make a video for a song he is composing.

 Although the teachers have not used Zoom previously, parish Youth Minister Denise York had used it with confirmation classes. She was able to quickly teach the teachers on how to use the video conferencing program. Some upper grades have used Google Classroom. Now, all classes including special education, intermediate and primary grade teachers have been using it. 

"We were able to get things up and running fairly quickly and we're learning as we go along," Duttweiler said. "Originally we thought we were only going to be out two and a half weeks, but now that's been extended. So, now we're going to have to regroup after Easter and see where we go from there."