PORTLAND—“I’m incredibly impressed with the planning and prep for the remote learning. I’m listening to other parents stress and worry about the disruption and added anxiety for some of the kids. We are so blessed with our school and faculty.”
The words of Bonnie Bogosian, a parent at Holy Cross School in South Portland, echoes the reaction from families across Maine’s Catholic schools as they navigate the first week of “distance learning” with their children. Maine’s Catholic schools, like the public schools, are temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We are personally having a positive and seamless experience with remote learning. I feel blessed St. James prepared early and so well for this crisis,” said the Wilkinson family, whose children attend St. James School in Biddeford, in an email to staff. “All of my other co-workers and friends’ children are not receiving the hands-on continuing education that my child is receiving every day. I appreciate everything you are doing on a daily basis.”
There are many different approaches being taken at the Catholic schools, but the one common denominator has been the incredible response from school families to distance learning, the technology, and the overall fulfillment and comfort seen in their children. Here are just some of the examples:
All Saints Catholic School, Bangor
“We are using Google Classroom in Grades 1-8 to support all curriculum areas including: reading, writing, math, science, social studies, physical education, art, music, and Spanish,” said Matthew Houghton, principal of All Saints.
Students start the day by logging into Google Classroom to check in for attendance purposes. Then they listen to daily prayer led by their teacher and begin their academics.
“Students can say ‘hello’ to each other and also post their work, click on video and audio links, and other related sites to support their work,” said Houghton.
The students, and their parents and guardians, are delighted with a surprising sense of normalcy.
“My son loved to listen to his Grade 1 teacher, Mrs. Powell, lead prayer and then listen to her reading their classroom read aloud book for 20 minutes. It gave him peace and comfort hearing her voice,” said one parent.
Each curriculum area lasts between 30 and 45 minutes. There are breaks for physical education, snacks, lunch, and other break times too, with plenty of time to communicate back and forth with the classroom teacher for ideas, information, and assignments.
“I am hearing so many positive remarks and feedback from parents at our dedication to making this distance learning a high quality, faithful, and loving experience for their students,” said Houghton. “I can see snow days being a thing of the past as we are now very well prepared to offer distance learning.”
Holy Cross School, South Portland
“We asked our teachers and staff to make a seamless move from face-to-face classroom teaching to face-to-face distance learning,” said Cindy Elwood, principal of Holy Cross. “Our technology team was amazing in preparing the devices for our students to take home for the duration of our distance learning.”
The school is providing face-to-face interaction as well as paper and pencil work packets to provide a well-rounded academic experience.
“Skype was the answer we were looking for,” said Val Rancourt, a fourth-grade teacher at Holy Cross. “We are one of the lucky few schools that gets to have face-to-face interaction with our students daily. It is so important that I get to see their smiling faces and feel their excitement to learn.”
“Breaking up the class time so we are not sitting at the computer for the full class is important,” said Julie Conroy, an eighth-grade teacher at Holy Cross. “I try to have hands-on activities that they are forced, by location, to do by themselves. I, or their classmate, help clarify the lesson as needed, but it forces each one of them to take the leadership role. We are working on not only collecting data, but organizing and using it to predict outcomes. The skills are the same, the manner in which we perform them now vary as we communicate through the internet. We follow up with reporting out which allows them to interact, a much needed part of their day. It is working well.”
The process requires additional preparation by the teachers but, in the end, it’s well worth it.
“If this is what it takes to keep us safe and healthy and to ensure that our students continue to learn and successfully complete their year, that’s what teachers do,” said Conroy.
“While we appreciate being able to be face to face and the students are especially happy to see us, we really stress how important it is for our families to enjoy each other,” said Elwood. “Our entire Holy Cross community has been awesome. We pledge to do our best and continue to provide a quality education as we have always done.”
St. Michael School, Augusta
“St. Michael School has been preparing for this for a while. The staff wanted to keep each distance learning day as close to a regular school day as possible,” said Kevin Cullen, principal of St. Michael.
The students start each day with a Facebook Live session with the principal and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance followed by a reading from the day’s Gospel and a discussion about what the passage means.
“We end the session with the Lord’s Prayer, news, and a ‘dad joke’,” said Cullen.
Each teacher is then using the online tool that they think are the best match for their students, including Zoom, YouTube, Google Classroom, MobyMax, ABCmouse, and other platforms.
“Every day, there is face-to-face communication with every student (pre-kindergarten through eighth grade),” said Cullen. “There are also scheduled times for recess, lunch, and ‘specials’ like library, physical education, art, Spanish, and music.”
The goal is to make every day feel like a regular school day, as much as possible.
“There is accountability for work done, and the students are responsible for turning in the work,” said Cullen. “So far, it’s been a great transition.”
St. John’s Catholic School, Brunswick
“At St. John’s, we had pre-planned for this so that our students would leave here last week with all of the material they needed to continue distance learning,” said Shelly Wheeler, principal of St. John’s.
Younger students went home with packets while middle-school students were issued Google Chromebooks.
“The teachers have worked tirelessly to write detailed plans and develop learning activities that our students could complete from home,” said Wheeler.
Remote instruction went live on Wednesday, with students logging into live sessions with their teachers each day using Zoom. Additionally, their work is being assigned and completed through Google Classroom.
“Primary and elementary students are working through their packets in conjunction with online learning programs they have already been using, Lexia and IXL, for reading and math support,” said Wheeler.
Wheeler says her staff has been nothing short of amazing in ensuring a seamless transition to distance learning.
“We are supporting one another and offering suggestions to one another to make sure everyone is up and running as we start this new journey together.”
The parents have been supportive as well.
“Emails have been coming into my inbox with comments about how appreciative they are for the amount of work we’re putting into things and how they have appreciated the constant and clear communication,” said Wheeler. “I am extremely pleased with the results.”
St. James School, Biddeford
St. James School in Biddeford is also providing distance learning for each student, pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.
“We sent home packets with needed materials and Google Chromebooks to anyone that needed them on Monday and started online learning on Tuesday,” said Nancy Naimey, principal of St. James. “We start each day with staff prayer and check in at 8:30 a.m. and students start their classes at 9 a.m.”
On Wednesday, students were encouraged to watch the online mass from St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Bangor.
“Our teachers are using that time to have a common planning time to work out kinks, support each other, and work together to improve as this goes forward and work in a collegial and cooperative manner,” said Naimey.
The launch and learning have been successful.
“On our Facebook page, parents are sharing photos of their students doing online learning,” said Naimey. “There were some great quotes and I got a lot of emails from parents expressing appreciation.”
St. Dominic Academy, Auburn/Lewiston
Auburn Campus (Grade 6-12)
“Our faculty, staff, and administrative team worked diligently to prepare for the continuation of student learning remotely,” said J.P. Yorkey, interim principal for the Auburn campus.
The base learning management system the teachers are using is Google Classroom, which many teachers at St. Dom’s had already been using to support their work.
Computers were made available to students who need them.
“As we shifted to remote learning, we have maintained our ‘black’ and ‘white’ day class rotation,” said Yorkey. “For high school students, this means that their teachers will be posting class instruction and work for periods 1 through 4 on black days and for periods 5 through 8 on white days, just as if they were attending classes in person. For our middle school students, seventh graders will have math and social studies on black days and language arts and science on white days, while eighth graders will have language arts and science on black days and math and social studies on white days. Like a regular school day, sixth graders will have each of their core classes every day.”
All middle school students also have religion class each day.
“Our classes are going well. We have a high level of student engagement and are actively reaching out to check in with students and families if someone seems to be having difficulties,” said Yorkey. “Student and parent feedback has been positive.”
Lewiston Campus (Pre-K-Grade 5)
“St. Dom’s Lewiston campus transitioned all of its classrooms, Pre-K through Grade 5, to a distance-learning platform that includes virtual elements as well as take home instructional material we’re calling School on the Go!“ said Alanna Stevenson, principal of the Lewiston campus.
Teachers are recording themselves reading their morning meetings, which include daily prayer and reflection. Lenten readings for each day have helped to guide the students’ thoughts and learning, and have proved ever more important in this unprecedented time.
“Our campus chaplain, Fr. Seamus Griesbach, has connected with our students via his YouTube platform,” said Stevenson. “As principal, I have created a website to share my morning prayers, any relevant announcements, and links to other pertinent information useful for families.”
In addition, teachers’ “office hours” have been established during which parents can reach out for direct and immediate communication.
Reaction to this quick transition has been supportive and positive.
“It has been evident that our staff has considered the importance of keeping a sense of routine and normalcy while also changing the format for their students’ learning,” said Stevenson. “We are blessed to have an incredible community that has been thankful and responsive for our efforts. As one parent said ‘St. Dom’s has done an amazing job under these circumstances!’”
St. Thomas School, Sanford
“Each teacher sent information to our parents and guardians with regard to methods being utilized for communication and lessons,” said Martin McKeon, interim principal at St. Thomas.
Depending on the grade, the platforms for the delivery of lessons and activities are packets, workbooks, textbooks, Google Classroom, Khan Academy, MobyMax, Scholastic Online, and others.
“Some teachers have used Google Hangout as a way of communicating with students,” said McKeon.
McKeon noted that the collaborative nature of teachers and staff throughout Maine’s Catholic schools in approaching this disruption has been helpful.
Just like a regular school day, attendance is taken, but some assignments are submitted electronically back to the teacher.
A handful of glitches aside, thanks to the patience and understanding of all involved, distance learning is off to a great start at St. Thomas.
“In much the same way that teachers worked through the stress of assembling a completely different arrangement for the delivery of education, our parents are working through the uncharted waters of distance learning,” said McKeon. “Our parents and teachers continue to be important partners in the spiritual and academic nurturing of the students whom we share. Our teachers are available in multiple ways throughout the day.”
Cheverus High School, Portland
“Our teachers are trained in Google Classroom, Google Meet, and other technologies to support our efforts at Cheverus,” said Dr. John Moran, principal at Cheverus. “Our goal with remote learning is to keep the momentum of classrooms going even while our physical classrooms are closed. Our teachers are maintaining contact with their students on each day that their classes would normally meet.”
Unlike typical school days when students meet together at a particular time of day, students often experience remote learning differently.
“Classes maintain contact with whatever methods teachers see fit. Students are sent an email each morning at 7:50 a.m. with announcements, a morning prayer, and a Google form that will allow them to ‘check-in’ to homeroom by 8:00 a.m.,” said Moran. “After that, we use our normal daily schedule as a guide to make sure students aren’t being asked to be in two places at once, but this does not mean that every class will have a virtual, visual session each day.”
On some days, teachers may host a group discussion, a quiz or a class assignment on Google Classroom. At times, students may be working independently and merely checking in with teachers by email to maintain contact.
On the first day of distance learning, the school had 97% of its students check in for homeroom, significantly higher than they would normally have on campus at this time of year.
“What I emphasized with our faculty was that we will use the technological tools available to us to maintain contact with our students and families and deliver the high quality instruction they’ve come to expect from Cheverus teachers,” said Moran.
St. John Regional Catholic School, Winslow
“Each staff member created a backpack filled with materials that we called ‘work at home bags’ for all of children, preschoolers through sixth graders,” said Valerie Wheeler, principal of St. John.
The bags include subject assignments and resources, while school staff will be offering face-to-face interaction and presenting lessons through Zoom.
“Parents have shared that their children are eager to engage in this new learning adventure,” said Wheeler. “One parent shared that their children had embraced this new adventure to the point where they had already created a special ‘classroom’ in their family room!”
The St. John staff has been grateful for the support they have received from parents.
“It is another good example of how we, as Catholic schools, always join with our families to form dynamic teams in educating their children.”