How do you know when something is essential? After almost 20 years in education, this is the first time my vocation as a teacher has fallen in the “essential” category. Since then, I have been pondering a deeper question: What is it that makes Catholic education, in particular, essential?
In 1803, after a tragic quarantine experience, William Magee Seton died of tuberculosis, leaving Elizabeth Ann Seton a young widow with five children. After discovering Catholicism in Italy, she returned to the United States and entered the Catholic Church in 1805 in New York. She was alienated by her friends and family and was left searching for more.
Four years later, with little money and formal training, she moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, to found the first Catholic school in America and a religious order for women. Not because she considered herself essential, but being a woman of faith, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton answered a calling.
Ever since then, Catholic educators have continued to answer the call. The uniqueness of our mission and vision centered on the incarnation, with Christ as the logos, makes teaching not a job but a vocation. The vocation is to serve and to bring Christ to others. To “offer it up,” to evangelize and give till it hurts. To us, this will always be essential.
We never stopped teaching
When COVID initially struck, we were told our doors would be closed for two weeks, so we prepared packets for the students to take home and made them available for pick up. After the first week, we knew that this was not enough, so over a weekend we launched Google Classroom with asynchronous learning for grades kindergarten through eighth grade. This seemed like the normal thing to do. We never closed to regroup or debated the merits of one response over another. We essentially just served to the best of our abilities.
This was an arduous feat to pull off because our school has been a low-tech/no-tech school by design, so this type of teaching was completely foreign to most of our staff. While several of our teachers wished they could choose a rock to sit on outside while the children gathered at their feet, (just as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton did) this would have to wait till the fall.
COVID and schools:My students are meeting the challenges of life and COVID. Our politicians? Not so much.
Over the summer, we formed a committee to consider the various options for the fall. We started by surveying our parents multiple times, which greatly helped to shape our reopening plan. We chose a hybrid format where students take turns two days a week attending classes on campus. Around 15% of our parents chose full distance learning for their children and this has worked well.
Next, we obtained approval from both the state Health Department and the Archdiocese, followed by a Zoom meeting for all of the parents to ask questions about the plan, paving the way to open our doors in late August 2020. The vast majority of our classes in grades first through eighth are streamed and recorded so they can be viewed live, or rewatched later.
There has definitely been a learning curve for our staff. They have had to adjust to teaching students who are seated in their classroom while also having the other half of the students in a Zoom room. All the while our teachers took it in stride, as part of their vocation.
Teaching the whole child, safely
Because Catholic schools aim to educate the whole person through the lens of Christian principles, there is a different way in which you appeal to the students.
Our education plan speaks of fostering what is particularly both human and spiritual in the souls of our students, as we develop the art of wonder and the habits of learning through the senses, leading them to Christ. We draw on the Church’s long tradition of education, freeing the learning process to pursue the abiding things: faith, truth, beauty, goodness, wisdom, and virtue. We work hard to give our students something better to love. Because of this shared vision as Catholic educators, our plan would require as much in-person learning as possible.
We quickly added safety precautions to include temperature checks upon arrival to school, specific entrances and exits for students, high powered fans, dividers in the hallways, dual directional fans in the classrooms, desks spaced six feet apart, students and staff masked, hand sanitizer available throughout the building, and floor markings outside of restrooms for students to wait.
Students need schools:Hey Joe Biden, COVID heroes at Catholic schools show road to reopening
Most classes use a rope with knots tied six feet apart, to move classes from outside to inside or vice versa, to retrain the kids what proper distance looked like. We prioritized our students who received services from our resource department and children of faculty members to go four days a week. Our resource teachers have worked tirelessly to provide much-needed support for these students who struggle to keep their focus in person, let alone online.
While we have had wait lists for several years now due to our classical curriculum, we have seen a healthy increase in applications this year due to the pandemic. With many schools solely choosing virtual learning, other parents yearn for some form of on-campus learning. Meanwhile, our faculty continues to answer their calling. Never asking how many kids they will have to teach, only looking for a chance to serve.
We have had zero cases of COVID transmission through our school. Out of our 408 students, we have had eight students test positive, and we have worked closely with the local Health Department to ensure that contact tracing, additional testing, and quarantine measures are in place. Our entire community has done a solid job in adhering to the protocols in place to allow us to keep our doors open.
And I do have to believe St. Elizabeth Ann Seton would be mighty proud of Catholic educators today, whether they are deemed essential or not.
Daniel Flynn is principal of St. Jerome Academy in the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Credit: Source link