April 10, 2020

Superintendent answers questions related to closing of schools

By John Shaughnessy

Gina FlemingGina Fleming knew that students, teachers and parents would have questions and concerns when Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced on April 2 that all Indiana schools will stay closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year.

As the superintendent of the 68 Catholic schools in the archdiocese, Fleming knew there would be disappointment and even heartache among the high school seniors who will miss out on such experiences as going to prom or participating in extracurricular activities ranging from spring theater productions to spring sports.

She also knew there would be questions from students, parents and families about high school graduation ceremonies and efforts to feed children who rely on federal government food programs.

The mother of two children also prepared to answer questions from parents about how to continue to motivate their children about learning, how to help them make the most of family time together, and also how to help their children as Indiana heads into one of the crucial stages of the coronavirus crisis in the state and the country. (Related story: Fleming praises educators, shares advice on motivating students)

Fleming shared her thoughts and insights on all these areas in an interview with The Criterion. Here is an edited version of that interview. 

Q. What was your reaction to the governor’s announcement? 

A. “The governor’s announcement was not a surprise to our team at the Office of Catholic Schools. While we miss our students greatly and know that the best option is typically our Catholic school experience in full, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis is committed to the safety of all those we serve.  

“Our hope is that this extended time period allows for Indiana residents to get past the highest transmittal period for COVID-19 in our state and then effectively ‘flatten the curve.’ As Governor Holcomb has said, all of us are ‘in this together.’ ” 

Q. Among the impacts this has on students and staffs, there is the reality of how it’s particularly hard in some ways on high school seniors. They will miss out on such traditions as graduation ceremonies and prom, plus a host of extracurricular activities ranging from spring theater productions to spring sports. Share your thoughts about the seniors. 

A. “On behalf of Archbishop [Charles C.] Thompson and all of us in the Office of Catholic Schools, I wish to share our disappointment for our seniors. Recognizing that this pandemic has affected some significant milestones yet to be experienced and knowing how these same events and experiences have been valued for generations, there really are not words that can adequately express our empathy. 

“That being said, it is often in the most unexpected situations and experiences that we learn a great deal about ourselves, about our relationship with God, and about the world around us. 

“I pray that our seniors are open to creating new and different milestones that possibly only they will experience—milestones that speak to their trust in God, their resilience, their desire for social justice and their gratitude for the many gifts and talents with which they have been blessed.” 

Q. Have any decisions been made regarding high school graduations, whether they will take place in any form at all? 

A. “Leadership teams at each high school are working on plans for graduations for our high school seniors. The Office of Catholic Schools will work with all Catholic schools to ensure that the Class of 2020 experiences a beautiful Baccalaureate Mass as a milestone of their final days in our Catholic schools. 

“There will not be large group gatherings for either, but school leaders are thinking creatively about ways to make these special experiences as personal and memorable as possible for the seniors, their families and loved ones. More details will be shared when they become solidified.” 

Q. According to government and medical projections, Indiana is heading toward a period soon where the impact of the coronavirus crisis will intensify in the state. What advice would you give to parents for handling the concerns of children who are worried and even fearful of that reality? 

A. “As with all things, young people are consistently watching the adults in their lives as role models. By remaining calm and ensuring that conversations on this matter are based on factual information and logical reasoning, our children will be much better informed and will be able to use this as a true learning opportunity. 

“This is a good time to reinforce the importance of hand-washing and other hygiene practices as well as proper responses to coughing, sneezing, food preparation, etc. It is also important to point out that healthy individuals, particularly their age, who have contracted COVID-19 have been able to recover. 

“Finally, I can think of no better way to find peace and comfort than in celebrating the Eucharist, participating in eucharistic adoration, praying and vigilantly working to grow deeper in relationship with God. I believe it was St. Francis of Assisi who said, ‘Pray twice as often as you fret.’ That’s good, sound advice.” 

Q. Many Catholic school students rely on the free-lunch program from the federal government for nutritious meals during their school day. When e-learning began in mid-March, there were plans in place to continue to provide these meals to children. How have those plans worked so far, and what is the future of those plans going forward? 

A. “Students and children 18 years and younger have meal options in every corner of the archdiocese. Many of these options are provided in our very own schools, while others are provided through the local public school and/or community centers. 

“There is a great need for continued support of local food pantries. However, in many cases, the majority of daily volunteers are those who are most vulnerable to this virus. Therefore, members of our Church are encouraged to reach out to their local Society of St. Vincent DePaul or other food sources for those less fortunate to see if assistance is needed.” 

Q. Christians will celebrate Easter this weekend, a time of rejoicing for followers of Christ. This is a tough period for all people, and the news about schools adds to these tough times. What Easter message would you like to share with students, staff and parents at this time? 

A. “We must remind ourselves that the early Christians often had to stay in hiding to ensure their livelihood. For centuries, the only communication was person-to-person. We are blessed to be able to celebrate our Christian Catholic faith openly and joyously. 

“We are also blessed to have technology that allows us to connect with others across the world. Just last week, my family celebrated Mass with our pastor and others through livestreaming, daily Masses with several other priests across the archdiocese, and we experienced an hour with Pope Francis. 

“In his extraordinary message [on March 27 about the pandemic], Pope Francis reminded us, ‘Many fathers, mothers, grandparents, and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday gestures, how to face up to and navigate a crisis by adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze and fostering prayer.’ 

“The trials and tribulations faced at this time are very real and difficult, yet when we trust in God and put these sacrifices in his hands, he is sure to help us. This is an opportunity for each of us to offer up our own hardships as a Lenten sacrifice for all those afflicted with COVID-19 and for those who have been entrusted to care for them. 

“The most important message I would like to share is that our Lord and Savior loves each of us so very much that he took up his cross so that we may each get to celebrate eternal life in heaven with our Father, his Son and the Holy Spirit. I can think of nothing more uplifting, inspiring and true.” 

Q. Your family is back together during this time. From your experience so far, what advice would you give to families to help them make the most of this time together? 

A. “As my family sat at the dinner table together near the beginning of the ‘stay-at-home’ order, I recall saying to my husband and our two sons—one in high school and the other in college—‘It would be shameful if we get on the other side of this pandemic and we haven’t used the time and resources we have to learn something new, to take on a new hobby or to refine our skills in some way.’ I can’t say we all embraced this concept with similar enthusiasm, but I still have a few weeks to work on them. 

“Imagine the creativity, innovation and joy our children can experience during this time. Learn how to play a new instrument or a new card game. Learn a new craft. Go on nature walks and explore the various types of trees and plants that grow well in our climate. Learn how to cook. Learn how to change a tire or the oil on a car.”

Q. Any other thoughts you’d like to share? 

A. “My hope is that none of us—parents, teachers, school leaders and Church leaders—forget this time in our lives. Let it be a reminder of what a gift it is to live in a country where our religious liberties are upheld, a state where parental choice of schooling is honored, and communities where quality Catholic education and formation are provided to young people as a vital ministry of the Church. 

“We cannot lose sight of the ways in which we have come together to support one another.” †

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