By Dr. Samuel Torres
It has been 10 months since students and teachers were asked to learn and teach remotely. March 2020 brought a moment of panic and fast motion. At that time, we had no way of knowing the extent of our challenges with the pandemic at hand. As time unfolded, it played out as a stimulating and exciting time for our teachers and principals. The importance of an unexpected time, such as this, quickly brought to the forefront the concern for protecting our students’ curricular opportunities. The Office of Catholic Schools worked to prepare and provide principals with the software and hardware needed to present curriculum for students in the Catholic Online Synchronous Learning (COSL) format at home. Support from all directions mobilized to protect the integrity of the programs.
In the summer of 2020, still many unknowns remained; making it difficult to assume our usual course of study. Despite the limitations, we set sail with better tools, freshly prepped teachers and great support from parents and students. In October of 2020, all our schools submitted waivers in the anticipation that in-person learning would begin thereafter. As a result of high virus case rate in our two counties, all reviews of school waiver applications were suspended. We were reminded that we are in the throes of a serious health crisis.
Recently, I asked some students, teachers, and principals for their thoughts regarding blessings, difficulties, and surprises resulting from the pandemic. Many students have remarked that although the separation has been difficult, they still feel the teachers are compassionate, engaged and applying teaching techniques that are effective. An eighth grade student at St. Hyacinth Academy said, “the technology allows us to submit questions to the teacher privately.” This student comments on the difficulty of school, “When we are taking a test, for example, the STAR test, we’re so used to having the teachers watch over us, and they’re not with us right now.” Another eighth grade student, from Our Lady of the Assumption School, says, “when a student is supported, they feel more comfortable about their surroundings and become eager to learn.” At the beginning of the stay at home, the student offered, “I found myself heartbroken because I was anxious to see my class, who feels like a family to me.” And further, “I am surprised by how prayer can unite a community as one body in Christ.” Many students and teachers miss the physical proximity that accentuates and emphasizes learning strategies.
The reflections highlighted the integrity and innovation applied by our school communities to address education on a holistic level. Catholic education has never been just about the test scores. It has been about providing nurturing communities where all continually develop toolkits that serve the curricular goals of our schools. Learning in and out of the classroom has allowed for a new paradigm; in many ways we are enriched by this opportunity and it has become a nice surprise for many learners and teachers. The journey unfolding before us has certainly required our full attention. Mrs. Tish Godsy, teacher and Vice Principal at Our Lady of the Assumption, remarks, “I see my students growing as responsible citizens and life-long learners….What surprised me the most is how resilient children are.” A third grade teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Indio, Mrs. Gricel Garcia states, “It has fostered a stronger relationship between them (students) and myself… It has opened the eyes of students to know that learning outside the classroom setting is possible.” And, of course, it doesn’t lack difficulties, “getting students to complete assignments,” continues to present its challenges. Our students want to be challenged and prepared for the next grade or institution. Mrs. Rosie Espino, teacher and Athletic Director at Notre Dame High School, remarks that she was concerned for the freshman class, not receiving the same opportunities afforded previous classes for connectivity. In some ways our traditions would not be practiced but the present times have allowed for new ones to be created.
Administrators on the other hand remarked concern for developing alternative forms of communication at a time when they have limited visual opportunities to assess student need for resources. Our Lady of the Assumption Principal Sue Long praises the school community in saying, “creativity” displayed by faculty, families, and students is “astounding.” “These unforeseen challenges” have expanded the horizons. She added that her efforts to see to everyone’s needs sometimes seemed insurmountable. Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Indio Principal Alisa Covarrubias, says “… we have found solutions together.” The faculty has bonded through this pandemic. She further shared, “I am truly grateful for our parent support. They have made the difficult job much easier during this pandemic.” New ways of communicating and showing support have surely been required of us. St. Edward School Principal Nathan Arnold spoke of his teachers’ skills as, “the improved ability to operate technology and the ability to conduct class from anywhere.” He further shared a difficulty as, “The inability to visually see someone or a family who is hurting and how we can help.” Communication has been a critical essential to the success of the school communities. St. Hyacinth Academy Principal Grace Lacsamana states that her greatest blessing is, “We have realized the value of each other.” Her most difficult moments stem from the loss of personal interaction.
Notre Dame High School Principal Ashton speaks of her blessings as a time to, “pause and reflect…this time has been good for our souls.” The difficulty was expressed as, “not seeing students in person, because they are what drive us, we do this for them.” Flexibility is critical in our Catholic schools. Our goal is to meet our students in their progression and advance them forward. A Notre Dame eleventh grade student speaks of her blessing, “Teachers put in the effort to teach us every day and we’re still getting somewhat of the same education we would be getting if we went to school.” These times have allowed us to try new ways of accomplishing the same goals. Students are reflecting on their individual learning styles and how they can utilize new skills. Another fellow senior at Notre Dame reveals her blessing as, “being able to spend more time with family…striving to make it the best school year I can.” Her difficulty is, “missing out on personal interactions.” She expressed another observation as appreciating the creativity of businesses and schools. She further expresses, “while thriving to remain safe and adapting to new protocols.” Many have chosen to remark on the positive ways in which they have seen innovation conquer goals.
In conclusion, the collective insights of our students, teachers and administrators reveal that resiliency, consistency, dedication, innovation, and appreciation for one another are the resounding attributes making Catholic Schools successful in the time of the pandemic. The hallmark combination of faith and academically-enriched school communities are still foundational for a Christ-centered student. Whether we are living through a pandemic or anticipating a return to a new routine, devoted Catholic educators make a difference. We will use our insight and skills to successfully emerge from the pandemic, stronger than ever, while always giving God his due glory. Over the past 47 years throughout our nation, it has been our tradition to celebrate Catholic Schools in February. We take this week to celebrate our students, teachers, administrators, parents and grandparents, benefactors and communities. Teachers lead these celebrations and encourage the students to show their appreciation to all who make their Catholic education a reality. As we all know it takes many loving hearts to prepare and provide for our students. Everyone is needed and all are important to create the beautiful and successful students being nurtured by Catholic Schools. I extend my heartfelt thanks and gratitude for the wonderful communities you have developed. Peace be with you!
Dr. Samuel Torres is Superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of San Bernardino.