November 20, 2020

COVID crisis leads 34 Catholic schools in Marion County to return to virtual learning

By John Shaughnessy

When Mary McCoy learned that the 34 Catholic schools in Marion County would be required to return to virtual learning by Nov. 30, the archdiocese’s interim superintendent of Catholics schools once again focused on how this latest result of the COVID-19 crisis would impact students, teachers, principals, parents and families.

“It’s hard for our students, our teachers and our administrators. It’s hard for our parents and our families,” McCoy said. “We all just need to work together. This is not the archdiocese causing this. This is not the principals causing this. This is not the teachers causing this. It’s the virus that is causing this. We need to remember this is new to all of us. We’re trying to navigate through this, and we have to do it together.”

The directive for a return to virtual learning for all Marion County schools from Nov. 30 through at least Jan. 15 came on Nov. 12 from Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the county’s public health department.

In announcing this requirement that impacts 34 of the archdiocese’s 68 schools, Caine said that Marion County has seen an increase in positivity rates for the coronavirus in all school-age groups: 18% for high school students, slightly more than 14% for middle school students, and 8% and rising for elementary school students. She also noted that 13% was the criteria for schools going virtual.

Caine called McCoy on the night of Nov. 11 to give her a heads-up about the pending announcement.

“I wasn’t shocked because we’ve been having this conversation since school started,” McCoy said. “In August, our prayers were that we could get our students in there and keep them for two weeks. Then it turned into four weeks, and then it turned into six weeks.

“We have been blessed that we have been able to have our students in the buildings, with face-to-face instruction, for almost the whole first semester. I never would have thought that would have happened back in August.”

McCoy shared her thoughts about this latest development during a conversation with The Criterion. Here is an edited version of that conversation, a conversation in which she called teachers and administrators “true heroes,” shared advice for parents, and asked everyone to keep their focus on their faith in the upcoming Advent and Christmas seasons as this challenging crisis continues.

Q. In August, you talked about how important it was for students and teachers to have a face-to-face connection to start the year. How has that worked out?

A. “It gave them that chance to build community. And community is what we’re all about in our Catholic schools. It hasn’t been without its challenges. While all the students are in the building face-to-face, they’re happy to be there and the teachers are happy to have them. But there’s still that challenge because they’re wearing masks, they’re social distancing, and they’re not touching or hugging each other. So again, it’s been a challenge to get that community built.

“But I can’t say enough about our teachers, our principals. They have been in the trenches day in and day out, fighting these challenges of this virus. They are our true heroes. They truly need to be commended. They are the ones who have made this happen. They have done it with smiles on their faces and continue to get up every day and do it again.”

Q. Are schools better prepared for virtual learning now than in March when in-school instruction was first closed down because of the COVID-19 crisis?

A. “I would say triple-fold. They are more than ready to do the virtual learning. They have technology in place. They have hot spots for those who may have trouble getting internet connections. Teachers have had training on the different platforms to teach virtually. Teachers have also been able to have professional development to use the resources that are in place to meet those needs.

“Still, it’s not going to be without its challenges. You’re still going to have students who fall behind, or those students who don’t have the extra support at home that they need. Or those students who are struggling with staying engaged and getting online. But we’re in a much better position now than we were back in March. We’ve had time to prepare.”

Q. Obviously, virtual learning for their children is a challenge for parents who need to work. What advice do you have for parents during this time?

A. “We understand it’s hard for our parents and our families. It’s also hard for our teachers and administrators. Work with your children’s teachers and principals. Be patient. Be kind. If we’re not working together, we’re certainly not going to be able to create the best environment for our students and our families.

“Be engaged yourself. I know that’s difficult for some of our parents. I know they’re trying to do a full-time career as well. Look over your child’s assignments. See what they’re learning. See what’s happening in their classroom. And provide support in any way you can. And if you’re struggling, don’t hesitate to reach out to the school. They are more than happy to assist and provide any sort of guidance that they can.”

Q. The virus has caused some schools to go to virtual learning before this Marion County directive. Other schools have been spared, leading some people to say, “Our school is a safe place. We don’t have the virus. Why do we have to close down?” What would you tell people in that regard?

A. “It’s about the community. Marion County has a nearly 13% positivity rate. When it gets so high, it’s putting our teachers and our students at risk because ultimately the community spread is going to come into our schools, and it already has in some of our schools. We have to take the attitude that it’s the whole community we need to think about.

“First and foremost for our principals and teachers is always teaching our faith. It’s also the safety of our students and our teachers. And we don’t want to take a risk that might just put one teacher or one student at risk. It’s better to follow the medical experts, to follow what the Marion County Health Department is telling us. They have the data. We want to make sure all our students, all our teachers and all our principals are safe.”

Q. We’re heading into Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas. What advice would you give parents and families to keep their focus on their faith amid these challenging times?

A. “Now more than ever, our faith is what’s going to get us through these challenging times. Stay strong in your spiritual life. Don’t give up hope. Turn to Jesus Christ. And focus on your family. Thanksgiving and Christmas are times when I know we want to be with our families. Many of us might not be able to be with our extended families this year, but do focus on your most immediate family. Just do it in a safe way. And still celebrate. Celebrate the holidays and the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” †

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