In September 2020, the faculty and staff at St. Mary Our Mother School in Horseheads welcomed students into their classrooms for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the sudden closure of schools throughout the nation the prior spring. But school was only in session for a few weeks before Chemung County was designated a COVID-19 orange zone.
Schools located in the zone, including St. Mary Our Mother, were required to close and test faculty and staff for COVID-19 before reopening for in-person instruction. Testing supplies were not readily available, however, so St. Mary Our Mother could not bring students back into the school for several weeks.
When teachers dismissed their classes before the October closure, they weren’t sure how long it would be before students could return to in the classroom, nor how they would fare with remote instruction in the meantime. Yet the students took the news in stride, recalled fifth-grade teacher Heather Bill.
“I said, ‘OK, guys, what are we going to do tomorrow?’ They said, ‘We’ll see you at 8:15 on Zoom,’” Bill said.
The students knew what to expect because Bill, like many other teachers at Catholic schools throughout the Diocese of Rochester, had been using the Zoom audio- and video-conferencing platform and other online tools in class since the start of the school year. Although each of these schools offered students the chance to physically return to the classroom for the 2020-21 school year, they also invited families to opt for remote instruction if they did not yet feel comfortable sending children back to school, according to James Tauzel, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools.
“Every school is using some element of distance learning, either to serve families involved remotely because of health concerns or to continue learning for families and student groups that may need to temporarily quarantine,” Tauzel said. “Schools are averaging between five and 10 remote learners at each site. These are across all grade levels, with most classrooms having zero to 3 distance learners at a given time.”
Both Bill and Colleen Meehan, sixth-grade teacher at St. Mary Our Mother, use virtual classrooms, digital hubs where students — both in the classroom and at home — can find everything they need for the day’s work. Meehan’s virtual classroom, for example, contains the link to the class’ daily Zoom sessions, as well as links to classwork, homework, reading assignments, and their teacher’s email address and office hours.
Laura Provenzale uses similar digital tools to instruct and communicate with the fourth-grade students in her class at St. Ambrose Academy in Rochester. The five remote learners in her class log onto Zoom at 9 a.m. each day and receive the same instruction from Provenzale as their peers in the classroom, she said.
“They are able to see me, their fellow classmates and my smartboard. They can ask questions or volunteer to answer questions at any time,” Provenzale said. “Remote students have been able to attend virtual Masses with the class, assemblies, Advent candle-lighting ceremonies and science labs. Our remote students have even requested to stay on Zoom during recess so they can continue to talk and interact virtually with the children in the classroom.”
Students in the classroom miss their peers who are learning from home and enjoy having opportunities to work together, noted Kristin Burch, whose third-grade class at St. Michael School in Penn Yan consists of 10 children in the classroom and one remote learner. Supporting remote learners’ emotional growth is just as important as fostering their academic learning, but can be tough to do through a screen, she added.
Teaching remote learners also requires extra time and planning, agreed Burch and Provenzale. Burch said she plans lessons at least a week in advance and prepares a packet of materials for her remote learner’s parents to pick up before the start of each week. And Provenzale noted that it takes extra time to create digital assignments students can complete and submit online, which is one reason it takes her two to three times as long to prepare lessons as before she started teaching remote learners.
Yet remote instruction also offers some unexpected benefits, teachers say. Some students who are reluctant to speak up in the classroom seem more likely to contribute to conversations on Zoom, Meehan noted. And during the last year students have been able to watch their teachers learn new skills right before their eyes, Bill added.
“I think that’s important for them to see. We might not have been perfect at this, but we tried our best,” Bill said.
“In addition to all the academic learning, we’re also teaching them life skills,” Meehan said. “It’s OK to make mistakes and give yourself some grace and learn from them.”