COLORADO SPRINGS. If life were going according to schedule, this week St. Mary’s High School students would have been working to stay focused as they approached spring break. On Wednesday, most would have participated in the sacrament of reconciliation, and Friday they would have celebrated Mass together before parting ways for the last break before the end of the school year. Instead, students have been at home this week, continuing their studies through online learning as the COVID-19 virus has, at least temporarily, changed the face of life in the US.
St. Mary’s has been proactive in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In early March, Principal Dave Hyland began working with President Rob Rysavy on a contingency plan should the school need to suspend or cancel activities, although at that point it seemed an improbable prospect. Students were surveyed to determine what access they had to technology at home and teachers were asked to begin (or in some cases, continue) exploring ways to deliver lessons virtually. “In our discussions with our diocesan partner schools, it was clear our Catholic schools were all in ‘lean forward’ mode and we were preparing for what we hoped was an unlikely scenario,” Rysavy said. “Our administrative leadership team here in the high school had just decided to transition to daily coronavirus meetings when the word came out that Colorado Springs and Denver were going to close for two weeks.”
The improbable did become reality on March 12, when most Colorado Springs and Denver area schools and districts, St. Mary’s included, decided to close in a unified effort to keep the virus from spreading. St. Mary’s students reported for school on March 13, so teachers could prepare them for at least a week of virtual learning. While Spring Break will be March 23-27 as scheduled, it will likely look much different for many families as destinations are closed and travel is being discouraged.
However, the events of this past week was not St. Mary’s first encounter with plans changing due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In early January, a group of students from an international school in Bejing arrived at St. Mary’s for what was supposed to be a three-week immersion visit. Several of the students were interested in attending the school in the fall, and their adviser Kelly Wang had helped plan the trip so the students could better discern their educational course.
“I have heard students in China say they want to study in the U.S., but they can’t explain why they want to do that,” Wang said. “In China, parents plan everything for their children, so I wanted the students to have an experience that helps them make the choice of studying abroad. Without experience they don’t know why it helps them, and it is a big choice to go abroad.”
The international school system that Wang works with already has three students at St. Mary’s, so choosing Colorado Springs as the destination for the immersion visit was an easy one for Wang. Most of her previous visits with student groups had a cultural emphasis that included visiting several sites around the country, but she felt that staying at one school for a couple of weeks would better help the students get a sense of what attending a U.S. school would be like.
The students were on their winter break when the trip to St. Mary’s began. However, the visit was extended by a month when flights to China were canceled in late January as COVID- 19 spread there. The students, who were staying with St. Mary’s host families, remained in contact with their families in China via calls, enabling them to know that their families were safe.
For the most part, the students took the extended trip in stride. It allowed them to work on their English and experience more of American culture. They enjoyed math classes at St. Mary’s and were surprised at the variation in the Colorado Springs weather.
“I really enjoyed the kids,” Jiachen Zhang said. “They have been helpful and we’ve gotten along well. I’m not confident speaking English and feel nervous speaking with the teachers but it’s easier with the students.”
Tiasheng Lui said he enjoyed staying with this host family, eating American food — his favorite was hamburgers — and the way the teachers presented their lessons.
“Classes here are more interesting,” Lui said. “The lessons are more hands-on and the students have more interaction with the students.”
Wang said while some of the students — who were on their first extended trip out of the country — were homesick when their stay was extended, their parents were thankful that their children were safe. As the group’s adviser, Wang said she was pleased with how the St. Mary’s community had supported the students during what could have been a stressful time for them.
Robyn Cross, St. Mary’s director of International Programs, said the school has just been living out it’s Catholic faith.
“We felt that extending the students support and compassion during an uncertain time for them was allowing St. Mary’s to live its mission,” Cross said. “We reach out and help each other and this situation has allowed us to do that.”
As the COVID-19 outbreak spreads in the United States, the St. Mary’s family will continue to rely on its faith as families, faculty, and staff support each other and show compassion to the local community.
(Amy G. Partain is director of communications for St. Mary’s High School.)