RACINE — No one was truly prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. Educational institutions were under pressure from the start of the school shutdown to make a rapid switch from in-person lessons to virtual learning with very little preparation time.
Siena Catholic Schools, which operates five private K-8 schools and St. Catherine’s High School in the greater Racine area, started virtual learning on March 19 and has since then been continually adapting its approach based on feedback from families. Administrators and teachers are in regular communication about what is and is not working while educators and students learn as they go in a completely new landscape.
“We’re re-learning the art and craft of teaching right now,” said Brenda White, president of Siena Catholic Schools.
Siena immediately provided students in grades six through 12 with devices to use for virtual learning. Lessons are modified for younger students who do not have access to devices or who must share with siblings. Siena has already made changes to its budget for the coming year to ensure every student will have a take-home device to use for schoolwork.
Gloria Schumacher, principal at John Paul II Academy — a Siena K-8 school, said the system’s virtual learning plan has been modified several times since March. For example, Siena revised the amount of work assigned each day based on feedback from students and parents.
“We didn’t know at first how much kids could really take in and do,” White said.
John Paul II provides an online calendar to families, making it clear when schoolwork is due. There are certain days are set aside for specific subjects, and Fridays were designated as advisory days. This is a time for teachers to plan, work one-on-one with students who need extra help, for teachers to do Zoom meetings to collaborate with one another and for staff to call parents and check in with them.
“I’m really proud of the progress that everyone has made,” White said. “At first this was a big shock. Teachers are to be commended, parents are to be commended because it’s a new reality for our parents too. They have been great partners and I applaud our parents who have had to learn how to juggle their work from home and help their children with their lessons. We could not do it alone without the support of parents.”
John Paul II has also made changes since the start of the shutdown in the time frame students are allotted to complete their schoolwork. At first students were given a day to complete their work, but teachers and administrators soon realized that parents who work varying shifts are not always available to help their children with schoolwork during such a short window of time. Now things are more flexible.
A few weeks ago, Jenny Angelini, a 4K teacher at John Paul II had the idea of a system-wide Zoom call with other teachers at her level to discuss virtual learning best practices and ideas. Angelini thought she was doing good work, but wanted to confer with others since teaching Siena’s youngest students remotely can be a challenge.
Carrying over some of the changes
That idea has grown and now all grade levels across Siena schools have individual grade level meetings once a week, as do its counselors.
“There is just great communication going on among teachers who don’t physically see each other all the time and now have the opportunity to Zoom,” Schumacher said.
The teachers have since decided to continue the practice even after in-person lessons resume.
One of the most significant benefits of these meetings is that it has gotten all the teachers in each grade on the same page when it comes to which academic standards they are focusing on during the shutdown.
Our Lady of Grace fourth grade teacher Kelly Lyman said it is important that students are not just given busywork, but are learning some of the standards they need to know prior to fifth grade.
She can also take a look at which standards Siena’s third grade students are learning, so she knows where to pick up in the fall.
“I think that Siena Catholic Schools should be really proud of what they’ve been able to offer in such a short time virtually,” Schumacher said. “No one knew this was coming. It was super fast and we’ve made some changes throughout. But we’ve never given up, and we’re teaching until the very last day of school.”
White, Schumacher and Lyman all applauded parents for their efforts to help their children with their schoolwork, while many of them also work from home and run their households.
Lyman added that parents have been understanding and appreciative of teachers during this difficult time.
“Teachers in America should be applauded and parents in America should be applauded because we always say in education how important the partnership between home and school is, but no time is more indicative of that than right now,” White said.
Siena has canceled summer school for K-8 students for this year as administrators shift their focus to preparing for the fall, plans and regulations for which are still in flux. Siena still plans to offer virtual summer school options for high school students.
Siena is planning a baccalaureate mass in late June to honor its 2020 high school graduates, as well as a drive-in graduation ceremony July 31 at the Siena Center.