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Basilian High Schools Transition to Distance Learning

June 11, 2020

When the Coronavirus pandemic hit North America in March, schools were closed and administrators and faculty of the Basilian high schools rose to the challenge of providing a Basilian education online. With the end of the school year, administrators at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, Ontario; St. Thomas High School in Houston, Texas; and Detroit Catholic Central in Detroit, Michigan reflect on their experiences with distance learning.

When transitioning to online learning, each school built upon technology that was already integrated in their classrooms and provided teachers with professional development. Teachers and students adapted quickly to a remote classroom environment.

“Blessedly, the focus of our professional development for the last few years has been on various technology platforms such as Google Classroom, so the foundations of distance learning were already in place. Looking at the rapidly escalating cases of COVID-19, we dismissed students for a couple of days and had the faculty come in to plan for what we discerned was an inevitable closure. As soon as the government closed schools we started up immediately,” said Father Patrick Fulton, CSB, principal of Detroit Catholic Central.

“We already had an online student management system in place that facilitated a lot of online interactions between students and teachers. We were on our two week March Break when it was announced that schools would be closed and we spent the second week getting ready for online learning. Online learning began the Tuesday after March Break, so we only missed one school day. There was a lot of stress for teachers to get ready, but they responded really well,” said Father Andrew Leung, CSB, president of St. Michael’s College School.

“This would be a whole new way for teachers to offer the curriculum, so we commenced with professional development on online learning for the teachers. We tried to keep the curriculum as rigorous as we could to maintain some normalcy in the students’ lives. After a few weeks we evaluated how online learning was going to see what was and not working and we adapted. We discovered that different platforms worked better for some subject areas than others and we changed the weekly schedule so that students weren’t constantly switching between different platforms for each subject,” said Father James Murphy, CSB, president of St. Thomas High School.

Administration realized that it would need to find a balance between maintaining their high academic standards while recognizing their role in providing comfort during the hardships faced by families during the pandemic.

“Teachers were prepared to deliver the content to the students, but there also was an understanding that these times are stressful and families are struggling and we didn’t want to overburden them. Yes, we wanted to make sure the students were learning, but we couldn’t lose sight of the struggle they’re going through. We tried to stay in constant contact with the parents and students to set expectations. In a lot of ways the school was a family’s connection to the world during this period of isolation and you have a responsibility on the human side to care about each of them,” said Father Murphy.

“The largest challenge by far was to keep some sense of community: this world event has highlighted the importance of schools, not only as a place of learning, but of deep community and human communion. Never before have I heard the words ‘I miss school’ from so many students,” said Father Fulton.

“As emergency orders were extended, we started to realize the chances of going back were pretty slim. We needed to prepare students that the new normal would be online learning. Online learning is all about independence. You need to be quite engaged to be successful and we had a lot of parental support. Our parents were impressed that we were able to switch so quickly and the teachers were able to engage the students by checking in on them and asking how they are. The most important part have online learning is engagement and connection,” said Father Leung.

As Catholic schools, particular care was given to incorporating the schools’ faith life into distance learning.

Since the beginning of the lockdown, Father Murphy has been celebrating Mass daily through St. Thomas’ Facebook page.

“With places of worship being closed, there were a lot more people tuning in. Along with our alumni and wider St. Thomas community, there are people at St. Michael’s in Toronto; St. Kateri Parish and St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York; and Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland, California watching at home and it’s fascinating to see the community that has become a part of the daily Mass,” said Father Murphy.

“Our faith life became very virtual: classes and meetings began with prayer as usual; Campus Ministry posted prayers and reflections each day for use by the Catholic Central community, including parents; Campus Ministry also reached out to families who were struggling through illness, death or hardship; Father Dennis Noelke, CSB led the Mothers’ Club in a weekly Zoom Rosary; and a teacher led a weekly Zoom meditation,” said Father Fulton.

“While there was no personal interaction, we were able to maintain what is important to the spiritual life for the school, parents, and students. We continued with Morning Prayer and celebrated Easter Mass through livestream, which we had never done before, and the Year End Mass was also livestreamed on the Pentecost. We’re still doing charitable work like food donations to the Out of the Cold program at St. Basil’s Church and we had a team of students use a 3D printer to make face shields. Individually, students are still volunteering at soup kitchens and shelters,” said Father Leung.

The end of the year comes with many rites of passage that graduates have taken part in throughout the schools’ history and unfortunately, some of these traditions cannot be recreated virtually. The Basilian schools made sure the achievements of their students were acknowledged.

“We had to cancel Academic Awards, Spring Concerts, and our Drama Production. Of all the groups that I feel the most bad for is the senior students: many of the rich traditions that mark this transition were lost. We had to cancel the Senior BBQ, prom, Athletic Senior Night, and sports banquets. We developed several occasions to honour our graduates like Operation “No Senior Left Behind”, where faculty delivered graduation yard signs and their first alumni t-shirt; all the teachers filmed good bye messages; we aired a mini-graduation ceremony on the radio; and celebrated a virtual Baccalaureate Mass, which ended with a slide show of all the graduates. We are planning for a stadium socially distanced graduation ceremony in the future,” said Father Fulton.

Some of St. Michael’s student achievements were celebrated virtually including its Virtual Athletic Banquet that had presentations by Olympic and professional athletes from the NHL, NFL, CFL, NBA, and MLB. “Some very recognizable names generously contributed their time to be presenters and the students and parents really enjoyed it,” said Father Leung. “We will be delaying Grade 12 graduation until October because we can’t gather in large numbers yet. As something nice for our Grade 12s, we have a memento of this unique circumstance for them in June,” said Father Leung.

“Our teachers are going above and beyond their day jobs to honour our senior students, including planning four different graduations as plans kept getting cancelled due to evolving restrictions. I personally delivered a yard sign to our valedictorian. The senior students organized a virtual prom that was crashed by some of the Houston Astros, which was great,” said Father Murphy.

There have been lessons learned and an acceptance of the new normal. Administrators are already preparing for what that will be when school returns in the fall.

“Our staff and students have shown that they’re able to pivot when necessary. We always want to encourage teachers to grow in their pedagogical methods and develop professionally and this confirms that we can do it well. The entire school community was very supportive of online learning,” said Father Leung.

“We have become far more comfortable with technology for aiding instruction and all of the socio-emotional work that we did for online learning will continue and be even more effective with face-to-face education,” said Father Fulton.

“There are plenty of times in Basilian history that we’ve had to adapt, whether it was going from all-boys schools to coed or from a small clerical faculty to predominately lay faculty. We’ve always been able to adjust and this is another example of being able to adapt. We can be really proud of what we’ve achieved,” said Father Murphy.

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