• <p>A student a Webster&rsquo;s St. Rita School works on a computer in the school&rsquo;s library March 2. (Photo courtesy of St. Rita School)  </p>

    A student a Webster’s St. Rita School works on a computer in the school’s library March 2. (Photo courtesy of St. Rita School)

Diocese of Rochester schools keep kids learning despite closures

Jennifer Burke/Catholic Courier    |    03.25.2020
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Dismissal time at Holy Family School in Elmira on March 16 was anything but ordinary.

“I know there were tears from some staff as the students left. It was very emotional for a lot of people,” Principal Paula Smith recalled.

When Holy Family’s students left the school March 16, no one knew when they would be able to return. The coronavirus arrived in the Rochester region in early March, and on March 14 all of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Rochester announced they would be closing their school buildings in an attempt to slow the virus’ spread. Many closed March 15, while others closed later that week. Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all schools in the state to remain closed at least until April 1.

Students at all of the diocese’s Catholic elementary and middle schools are continuing to learn and interact with their teachers online. The faculty and staff of local Catholic schools started to hear rumors of possible closure a few days ahead of time and set to work immediately, brainstorming ways to continue educating students from afar.

“I’m amazed. I could not ask for a better team,” James Tauzel, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, said of the teachers and principals who put together plans for online learning with very little preparation time.

Those plans vary greatly from school to school and even class to class. Each day at 9 a.m., for example, Holy Family’s sixth-grade teacher, Corinne Moshier, posts a list of the day’s assignments to her Google Classroom, which is an online service that allows teachers to create, distribute and grade assignments. Thanks to various Web-based tools, programs and apps, many of the assignments allow for frequent interaction between the teacher and students and sometimes between the students themselves. This interaction is valuable, yet still not quite as good as physically being in the classroom with students, Moshier said.

“Usually I can walk around a room, scan the work and judge whether the students need clarification,” she explained. “Now I just have to wait until it’s submitted. I can’t physically see whether a student is taking three minutes or 20 minutes.”

Holy Family’s second-grade teacher, Jonathon Chapman, said he also posts all of his students’ assignments online first thing each morning. After posting these assignments, he sits at his dining room table and puts together the next week’s assignments.

“When a student submits an assignment, I go into it immediately and look at their response. I give them immediate feedback on their answers, and let them know if they need to fix anything,” Chapman said. “I usually receive most work during normal school hours. … Some students have maintained our regular schedule, while others try to get it all done in the morning. I have a few who cannot do it until after dinner. … It is a very flexible schedule that depends on what the student and family need to be successful.”

Every family is different, he acknowledged, and some children must share computers and other electronic devices with siblings, while others are not able to go online and do their school work until their parents get home from work. Erica Agar, for example, said she and her son, a fifth-grader at Holy Family, check out his assignments first thing every morning and try to get through as much work as they can before taking a break.

“At times it is overwhelming, I think because he feels like everything is being assigned all at once. During a typical school day things are more spread out,” she said, noting that she has “the utmost respect” for all the teachers are doing for their students.

Trying to find an approach that will work for all of the students in one class — and their families — is a delicate balancing act, remarked Emily Sutley, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at St. Rita School in Webster.

“We are trying to make sure students are continuing to make progress and develop their skills while being sensitive to the needs of our families,” she said.

Each Monday Sutley posts a list of all of the assignments her students will need to complete that week.

“When assigning tasks I make sure that with every reading or video, students have a written assignment to complete. This way I am able to keep track of whether or not my students are comprehending the material,” she said.

On March 19 she held a class meeting on the Zoom videoconferencing platform, and Sutley said she was grateful for the chance to be with her students online. She plans to use Zoom once a week to connect with her fifth-grade students and maybe even teach a few lessons.

Teachers at Siena Catholic Academy in Brighton aren’t assigning a lot of new material and instead are focusing on reinforcing what students learned before their school was closed, but they are ensuring their students have assignments to complete on their school-issued Chromebooks each day, said David Carapella, Siena’s principal.

“You just kind of remind folks that your child isn’t going to be busy for seven hours a day like they would be if they were in school. It’s just impossible, and it wouldn’t be fair to them, but they will have work for every class, every day,” Carapella said.

The most important thing is to help students further their education while also helping them maintain some semblance of normalcy, Chapman said.

“The kids really seem to be adjusted and understand that this is the ‘new normal,’” he said.

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