By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published April 2, 2020
ATLANTA–Blessed Trinity High School has been engaging in online learning since 2014. So, when COVID-19 hit and forced the school to close, it was prepared to shift to what the community refers to as “virtual days.”
Beginning in 2014, the school scheduled “one or two virtual days each year to help us be better prepared for a year when we actually needed to operate virtual days unexpectedly, such as this year,” said Brian Marks, president of the Roswell high school.
Since 2015, Blessed Trinity has been a one-to-one Chromebook school, meaning every student and teacher has the same type of Google operating laptops. The laptops include a microphone and camera. Students and teachers use programs such as Google Hangouts and Zoom for online learning.
The school follows a block schedule, which has fewer classes per day for longer periods of time. Faculty, staff and administrators are available online during normal business hours to answer questions from students.
“Although I firmly believed we were well prepared for virtual days, no one could have ever imagined that we would need to operate them for weeks,” said Marks. “I am proud of our students, parents, faculty, staff and administration for working together to make this unsettling time as close to typical school days as possible.”
Online learning has become the new normal in Catholic schools since being closed on March 16 due to the coronavirus.
“It’s amazing really how we’ve adapted,” said Dr. Diane Starkovich, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The 18 archdiocesan schools are to be closed through Friday, April 17. The six independent schools in the Atlanta Archdiocese are closed as well, with different end dates depending on spring breaks. As the coronavirus continues to spread, reopening dates may change.
“While I hope that our schools will reopen on Monday, April 20, the rapidly evolving and changing nature of the spread of COVID-19 will require that date to be reviewed,” said Starkovich in a letter sent to school staff. “We greatly appreciate your support as we navigate these unchartered waters together.”
While there have been some learning curves with technology, all Catholic schools have jumped into online learning, using programs such as Google Classroom and PowerSchool.
High school students have classes at the same time as their normal schedule. Incorporating live video lectures means there is an expectation for appearance, explained Marks.
For elementary schools, active learning hours were cut 50 percent and principals were given freedom in how to divide those hours. Mondays are considered teacher planning days, giving students and families a break from online instruction.
“I realize the closing of our school buildings places a hardship on families as many parents are working remotely from home as their children continue with online learning,” said Starkovich.
With the change to online learning for an extended period, teachers have made major adjustments to their lesson plans, which involves a great deal of creativity.
Families of St. Catherine of Siena School in Kennesaw built prayer corners at home. Students from St. Jude the Apostle School, Atlanta, were invited to draw their favorite animals and submit their work for a visual art show. Our Lady of the Assumption School’s students were challenged to find ways to make others happy. Results included donating Girl Scout cookies to medical workers and making meals for neighbors. Many of the schools also incorporate prayer throughout the week.
Starkovich thanked administrators, teachers and school support staff “for their dedication, creativity, and tireless efforts to implement online learning for our students where students have daily ongoing support and direct communication with their teachers.”
Online learning has brought a newfound respect and admiration for teachers. Parents have seen how teachers put it together, said Starkovich.
“That’s been an unanticipated benefit,” she said.
Tony De Feria thanks the teachers at Holy Redeemer School in Johns Creek for helping his 5- year-old kindergartner.
“I knew you all worked hard at school, but I assure you we have an even higher level of appreciation for what educators and staff do for our children,” said De Feria.
As schools post pictures and videos on their social media pages of the online learning experience, parents fill the comments thanking teachers for their efforts.
“Parents have been so complimentary. They have just been so positive,” said Starkovich. “There’s a new profound respect for how teachers work.”
While technology has made great improvements over the years, allowing education to continue from home, “it does not replace day-to-day, face-to-face instruction,” said Starkovich.
Celebrating birthdays, praying together and a sense of community are not easily replaced by online learning. However, online learning may be incorporated more for special circumstances, including inclement weather.
“The advantage of virtual days has been that there is no interruption in our students’ learning when unforeseen events require school to be otherwise cancelled,” said Marks. “We do not have to make-up school days when there is a long-term school closure due to inclement weather as we have seen occasionally over the past several years.”
Blessed Trinity also sees higher attendance rates for virtual learning days. While normal class attendance days at the beginning of March were at an average of 95 percent, virtual class days have an average of 98 percent of attendance or higher.
In addition, online learning can help students stay engaged when they are too sick to physically come to school. Kids who would miss, can now attend because they’re at home, said Starkovich.
Once the threat of COVID-19 is over and school returns to normal, there will be a debriefing session of the online learning experience. Until then, many administrators, school staff, teachers, students and parents plan to relax during spring break, where everyone will have some time away from logging in, live lectures and assignments.
Everyone deserves to look forward to that time away from their computers, said Starkovich.