Catholic schools say lessons learned during pandemic will assist them in the future

As the school year came to a close, several Catholic school principals in the Diocese of St. Cloud said distance learning went surprisingly well after schools closed their doors to in-person learning to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.  

“While there can always be improvements, remote learning has gone very well, better than I expected,” said Erin Hatlestad, principal at St. Katharine Drexel School in St. Cloud. “We have never worked harder to make sure all the needs are being met, with very little lead time to be prepared. Teachers jumped in and changed how they teach to make this new way of learning successful.”

Maria Heymans-Becker, principal at Holy Family School in Albany, said she appreciates her teachers’ creativity as well as the engagement and strong sense of partnership with parents to make distance learning successful.

“The partnership with our families has been tremendous,” she said.

Graduating sixth-graders at St. Katharine Drexel School in St. Cloud were honored with signs placed in their yards. (Photo submitted)

Although interacting with students face-to-face is critical to form relationships with students, some unexpected blessings came with distance learning.

“With the stay at home order, we have all slowed our pace down,” Hatlestad said. “Families have done more together — games, walks, dinner around the table.” 

And teachers have benefited, too.

“We are learning many new technology terms, platforms, ways to communicate, and ways to be creative on a device,” said Christine Friederichs, principal at St. John’s Area School in Foley.

New technology is one thing principals are hoping to expand as they look ahead to next fall, when some predict a second round of the coronavirus could impact communities.

“We will be purchasing additional digital devices this summer to create a one-to-one program to support education for each student at school and at home,” Friederichs said. “Our plan is to have a school-issued device for each child to better supplement instruction and be prepared to switch between a traditional school setting and distance learning when necessary.”

Hatlestad said she and her staff are preparing for a new normal. “We are planning for three scenarios: opening in the fall with new guidelines for in person instruction, a hybrid scenario and distance learning,” she said.

“If we need to start the school year online, we will be prepared to have a strong plan in place,” Heymans-Becker said. “We have learned so much during the past two months of distance learning.”

Looking ahead to next school year, principals are hoping enrollment stays steady. Schools are encouraging parents to apply for any scholarships that are available.

Brenda Job, a first-grade teacher at Saints Peter and Paul School in Richmond holds a sign as she greets families during a reverse parade May 12. Teachers and staff lined up around the school to wave as students and their families drove by in their cars. (Photo by Dianne Towalski)

“COVID continues to throw curveballs daily, so we are trying to prepare as much as possible,” Hatlestad said.

“We are really hoping for a steady enrollment for next year,” added Heymans-Becker. “But we also know that the pandemic has greatly affected some of our families and our parents’ jobs, which could also affect their plans for their children’s education.”

As the year wraps up, schools are honoring their students and graduates with outdoor celebrations that observe physical-distancing requirements.

“While respecting regulations by the governor and bishop and with social distancing, we will still celebrate the graduation of our kindergartners and fifth-graders,” said Heather Pfannenstein, principal at Sts. Peter and Paul School in Richmond. “Though it will look and feel very different this year, it doesn’t change how much we love our students and how proud we are of each one of them,” she said.

Video and livestreaming technology are playing a big role in how schools are marking the end of the year. From recording commissioning services to livestreaming a parking lot blessing, teachers and staff are taking skills they had to perfect quickly for distance learning and using them to help their students find closure as the year ends.

Staff at St. Katharine Drexel created several videos of themselves having fun and sending positive messages to their students, Hatlestad said.

“Teachers also had end-of-the-year virtual classroom parties,” she said.

Graduation ceremonies for the two high schools in the diocese have been postponed until later in the summer.

Cathedral High School is scheduled to celebrate graduation July 23 at The River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud, according to a post on their Facebook page. A virtual ceremony will be celebrated that day if there are still restrictions in place due to COVID-19.

St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville is planning a virtual ceremony on June 19. 

Author: Dianne Towalski

Dianne Towalski is a multimedia reporter for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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