COLORADO SPRINGS. Education didn’t stop when Colorado Governor Jared Polis ordered all schools closed because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
In Catholic schools around the diocese, Chromebook carts were divested of their Chromebooks and lent to families needing technology to use at home. Schools invested in upgraded Google Suites and held virtual class meetings. Teachers learned new ways of communicating with students. Families learned whether or not the wifi was up to speed for multiple devices, and how to supervise the work of multiple students.
One school held a homework exchange where Kindergarten through third-grade teachers collected homework and passed out the next week’s work to a car line of parents. Of all the shifts that occurred, however, the most formidable challenge was faced by teachers who lost almost every tool they had and were forced to learn an entirely new style of remote instruction on extremely short notice. But by all accounts, they have risen to the occasion.
“School buildings may be shut but Catholic education is open in the Diocese of Colorado Springs,” said Holly Goodwin, Superintendent of Schools. She said that teachers received initial professional development for the transition, and ongoing development will be provided virtually though the remainder of the school year.
After it was discovered in early March that the virus had spread to several Colorado ski resorts, school officials began to evaluate how students could learn during extended closures.
Helen Mills teaches fifth grade at St. Paul School in southwest Colorado Springs. She described the moment when the teachers realized that school had changed for the foreseeable future:
“On Friday the 13th (of March, after Governor Polis’ announcement), when the school leadership decided that remote teaching would begin the following week, the faculty looked at each other with uncertainty, fear and doubt. What does a virtual classroom look like? Do we deliver instruction via prerecorded video and should we attempt to go with live video broadcast? The biggest question of all, how will this work when the students and the teachers had no advanced preparations?”
Mills was ready by Monday with the basics of the new online class. “Knowing the importance of student engagement, I decided to conduct my class using elements of Google Suites, starting with Google Meet. It was fairly simple, most students have a family computer, all had an St. Paul’s email account, if necessary the school provided Chromebooks.” She was apprehensive, that first Monday, about how it all would work. She took time to teach the students how to access their schedules and documents from Google Calendar and how to return their homework to her in their own homework folder located in the Calendar.
Mills could see her students settling in. “By day three, one student was showing her cat to her classmates, and soon we had a pet parade. They seemed to enjoy interacting with each other. They tend to log-on 20 minutes in advance of class to socialize, show off their pets, and ask about homework. Honestly, I’m not sure who has more fun, them or me.”
To prepare for remote teaching, Mills built student files, posted weekly and daily schedules, built virtual backpacks and posted lesson packets on-line. Luckily, she has a 28-year-old son who teaches online at CU Denver. He helped her build a filing system with schedules, key documents, and a homework folder for each student.
Teachers all over the diocese have had similar experiences, and Goodwin emphasized that, although the format of the lessons may have changed, the content for students is still the same. “We continue to partner with parents to provide a rigorous online faithbased education and spiritual formation for our students, while having fun in the process. Our daily classes begin with prayer or Mass, blessings from the pastor, greetings from the administration, students recite the pledge and mission statement together virtually. After announcements, the classes begin. We continue to provide academic instruction inculcated with the Catholic faith on a variety of different schedules. Teachers begin by taking attendance and then move to direct instruction. Most classes are interactive with teachers and students communicating in real time. Teachers can still provide explanations, model responses, give examples, answer questions and determine if small group or individual conferences are needed during the day to help solidify a concept with a student. Assignments for older students are turned in through Google Docs, graded and returned. Younger students have packets of material that have been provided to support the learning. The teachers have been amazing and continue to add new features and experiences weekly.”
Goodwin added that task forces were created to help teachers, students and parents with technology issues and to provide emotional support if needed. Teachers formed grade level support groups across all the Catholic schools to help with resources and share ideas. Terms such as Google Hangouts, Kahoot, Class Dojo, Kjeet, just to name a few, became part of the vernacular. Virtual choir performances, student and teacher videos, online surveys, virtual field trips are all part of the creative tools being used weekly. School newsletters include resources for parents and students.
“There were challenges along the way,” said Mills of her class. “I have had several oh-my- gosh moments where my camera did not work, or the students could not hear me. The students have been amazing and have inspired me. The sad news is — no more snow days in Mrs. Mills’ class!”