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SMHS rises to the challenge of online learning

04/17/2020 | Comments

COLORADO SPRINGS. When the 2019-2020 school year started seven months ago, no one in the St. Mary’s community could have fathomed how the spring semester would unfold. In August it would have been unthinkable that the week before spring break, the entire school would move to distance learning from home as schools closed statewide in an effort to suppress the spread of the COVID- 19 coronavirus.

While the circumstances of the last month have been less than ideal for students, St. Mary’s commitment to its community has been evidenced in how the school’s administrators, faculty and staff have adapted to the situation. St. Mary’s Principal Dave Hyland began preparing teachers for the possibility of moving to distance learning in early March. At that point, the thought was that it could happen as early as the first week of April.

Instead, on the morning of March 12, St. Mary’s administrators heard that schools could close in a couple of weeks. Then, six hours later, St. Mary’s President Rob Rysavy was told that, starting the following week, Colorado Springs schools were closing for two weeks and Denver schools were going to close for three weeks.

Rysavy and Hyland met that evening and decided that St. Mary’s would not close. They informed the teachers that night that Friday would be a distance-learning preparation day, and Monday, March 16, would be St. Mary’s first day of distance learning. Instead of having “a couple of weeks” to further prepare, teachers had less than 12 hours to prepare for the change.

“It was not a hard decision that we would not close; it was important for us to implement distance learning as quickly as possible,” Hyland said. “We wanted the students to understand we were serious about continuing their education; we were not going to just check a box — no break. The parents needed to understand that St. Mary’s was fully committed to the education of their children.”

In the last month, the process of distance learning for St. Mary’s students has continued to evolve as administrators have listened to parents and students and adjusted how teachers provide the college preparatory education for which St. Mary’s is known.

St. Mary’s High School sophomores Cameron and Chelsea Baker display Easter eggs that they dyed with everyday household pigments. The activity was part of an online honors chemistry assignment on organic functional groups. (Photo courtesy of the Bakers and Suzanne Tibbits)In the beginning, teachers were given a lot of flexibility, not just on how they would work with students, but also on when they would schedule those encounters. Some were using Google Classroom, some Zoom, some YouTube, and some were scanning and emailing paper assignments back and forth with students. While it was working, navigating various platforms was asking a lot of the students who had seven classes to balance. The lack of a schedule resulted in cases where a student might not have a scheduled “engagement” for an entire day, allowing them to sleep in, and then work on homework until very late.

“That first week of distance learning gave us many lessons learned,” Rysavy said. “When we sent the students home on March 13, we told the teachers, ‘Deliver education next week, we don’t care how you do it, we’ll standardize later.’ That’s what we did; school stayed in session, but things were nonstandard across the school. We then took the next week, which was spring break for us, to standardize. We’re still not perfectly standardized, but we are better and we continue to improve.”

Parents began to ask for more scheduled learning, and St. Mary’s administrators started working to accommodate those requests. The administration made the decision to standardize using Google Suite, and specifically Google Classroom. To add more structure and routine to the day, St. Mary’s began starting each school day with prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and announcements via video conference on Monday, April 6. That same week, the teachers were asked to hold at least one of their live video instruction sessions on Monday and were encouraged to have another live video conference later in the week.

“We’re listening to our community. They have said they want more structured time during the day for their students, some sense of a routine, and more structured time with teachers in a live environment. We know young people benefit from structure and routine in their lives,” Hyland said. “We planned for those adjustments and rolled them out in the third week of distance learning. Even now it’s not perfect; it’s still a work in progress, but the feedback is that things are better now.”

While the students admit to the situation being stressful for them as most are missing their friends, teachers, sports and extracurriculars; overall, they have also adapted well to the changes that have been thrust upon them. Since many St. Mary’s students have attended one of the four Colorado Springs K-8 Catholic schools (Corpus Christi, Divine Redeemer, St. Paul and St. Peter in Monument), they had previously been exposed to online learning tools like Google Classroom.

“At least two thirds of our students had some basic structure in online learning that they brought with them from our great Catholic partner schools here in Colorado Springs,” Rysavy said. “That previous experience has meant the transition to distance learning was not as challenging as it might have otherwise been for our students.”

While the St. Mary’s community is hopeful that students will be able to return to campus and face-to-face instruction before the end of the school year, administrators, faculty and staff are committed to keep adapting to create the best possible situations for the students. Senior events, including retreat, prom and graduation, have been moved to June in hopes that the events can be held as they have in the past. The administrators are in daily communication with the community, and overall the feedback has been positive.

“Whether we have the opportunity to finish the semester in person, or if we have to finish with distance learning, we are prepared,” Rysavy said. “We have heard that our community is grateful that the school has not closed, aside from already scheduled breaks. They have also been positive about the regular communication they are receiving from the school. They are grateful to be part of a community where they feel supported and encouraged.”

(Amy G. Partain is director of communications for St. Mary’s High School.)

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