Catholic schools employ modern technology to connect with students during time of distance learning

Published by the Catholic Standard on Friday, March 20


Incorporating traditional prayer and newfangled technology, Catholic schools throughout the Archdiocese of Washington are using a variety of methods to continue teaching while fostering a sense of community among students who cannot attend classes because of COVID-19 precautions.

“When in-school learning is not possible, using research-based digital education programs at home can help children stay engaged, provide them valuable learning experiences, and maintain some continuity in their lives,” Bill Ryan, the archdiocesan Secretary for Catholic Schools, wrote in a March 18 letter to parents and guardians.

Many schools are using web-based programs specifically designed to facilitate distance learning.

Among platforms being used by archdiocesan schools are Google Classroom, where teachers can teach classes, hand out assignments and grade classwork; Zoom, a video conference program that allows group instruction; Flipgrid, a program that allows teachers to ask questions and students can respond to the teacher and interact with each other; and OneNote, a program that allows multiple users to share notes and drawings along with audio commentary.

Also, teachers in some archdiocesan schools are creating videos where they teach a lesson and then send it on electronically to students.

Ryan said that he is “incredibly proud of the amazing teachers and principals who have risen to the challenge to provide meaningful learning experiences and opportunities for students to come together as a faith community under these very unusual and unexpected circumstances.”

In addition to academics, schools are using technology to teach and share the faith.

“Our staff is recording the Stations of the Cross to send out to all families on Friday,” said Christine Patton, principal of St. Columba School in Oxon Hill, Maryland. “Each staff member took a Station and we are putting it together in a PowerPoint with responses for the families.”

Patton also noted that “I have been sending daily prayers to families through email and text messages.”

At St Mary's Ryken High School in Leonardtown, “one way we are continuing faith formation is by posting a new prayer each morning on our internal school portal,” said Betsy Haley, communications and marketing director of the school.

“This means that each morning when students, faculty, staff and parents log in, the first item they see, is a prayer for that day,” she said. “We also plan to live stream a Mass next week from our school chapel with our school pastor, Father Scott Woods. No one will be in the chapel except for our pastor and one person live streaming.”

Our Lady of Victory School in Washington, D.C., helped students virtually participate in the March 19 global recitation of the rosary called for by Pope Francis to invoke the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph in combating the spread of COVID-19.

Sheila Martinez, principal of the school, noted that she set up the prayer using the GoToMeeting web program and it was “first time … to 'meet' (virtually) as a community for prayer.”

“Keeping the traditions of our Catholic school communities is more important now than ever. What I find remarkable is what is being done via the web to teach our Catholic faith and traditions,” said Kelly Branaman, associate superintendent for the Archdiocese of Washington. “Our teachers have found very creative ways to continue teaching the most traditional aspects of our faith using modern technologies.”

Many schools are using modern technologies to make sure their students are bolstering their faith, continuing their academic studies as well as feeling they are part of their school community.

Jennifer Thompson, principal of Our Lady Star of the Sea School in Solomons, said that “every morning my school usually begins with morning prayer in the church. Therefore, I have been sending a 'Morning Memo' via email to all of my students. It includes something relevant for that day. For instance … a coloring page of a monstrance.”

“Additionally, my teachers have been emailing students on a daily basis and just adding extra credit assignments, fun jokes, cool links that students might like to explore and just in general checking in to make sure everyone is OK,” Thompson said. “We are hoping that if they hear from me in the morning and then from their teachers at least once a day it will help to keep some normalcy or consistency.”

Her school is also live streaming Mass every morning at 9 a.m.

Michelle Taylor, principal of Holy Family Catholic School in Hillcrest Heights, said that in addition to classroom instruction, her school is using the web “to have a virtual school spirit week to continue to build community and connect during the closure.”

She said the school has planned a series of events where students work on math, science, history and other projects and then post pictures to the school website.

Elise Heil, principal of Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C., said her school is offering students distance learning in both Spanish and English.

“We're pleased to be doing total distance learning - in both languages. We're making sure that all of our resources, emails, platforms are available in both English and Spanish and that students still have access to resources that support language development either language,” she said.

In addition, she noted that the middle school language arts teacher “opened up a Google.doc for the eighth graders to add their prayer intentions to. Their responses were thoughtful and beautiful - and (offer) real insight into what our children are thinking about and worried about at this time.”

In this time of distance learning, it is not just the students who are being served via the Internet and digital technology. Ryan, the archdiocesan Secretary for Catholic Schools, is leading weekly webinars for principals and pastors to discuss updates to the current situation, and educators of different regions “meet” via the web to share ideas and strategies on how best to serve their students.

Individual schools are also hosting events fro their faculty and staff.

“We have been committed to finding ways to maintain a sense of community during this time of social distancing while supporting the social-emotional and learning needs of our students amidst one of the most challenging times in our country's history and certainly my time at McNamara,” said Marco Clark, president of Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville. “We used Google Meet to create a virtual faculty room for teachers to get together and chat and work alongside each other, just like the one we have at school.”

Vivian Nourse, instructional coach and inclusion teacher at Our Lady of Mercy School Potomac, said, “Mercy teachers have been hard at work sharing resources on a Mercy Staff Google Classroom, collaborating in team meetings via Zoom video calls, and creating assignments for all students.”

She added that via the Internet, her school's teachers “have participated in team meetings, all staff meetings, and optional training meetings.”

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