January 29, 2021

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Schools in archdiocese find ‘grace to tackle, move forward’ from pandemic challenges

Plexiglass is used on a table during sixth grade art class at St. Nicholas School in Ripley County during the 2020-2021 academic year to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Clockwise from upper left, the students are Maria Drieling, Anne Kraus, Mazzy Stockman and Lily Eckstein. (Submitted photo)

Plexiglass is used on a table during sixth grade art class at St. Nicholas School in Ripley County during the 2020-2021 academic year to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Clockwise from upper left, the students are Maria Drieling, Anne Kraus, Mazzy Stockman and Lily Eckstein. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

Steve Beyl wasn’t feeling well as the school year ended in May 2020. He went to the doctor and was told he had a viral infection.

“When the doctor asked me if I was stressed, I just laughed,” said Beyl, principal of Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in New Albany.

At that point, he—and school staff throughout the archdiocese—had been dealing since mid-March with the challenges of a sudden school shutdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

And the stress didn’t end in May.

“There’ve been a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of stress” since the shutdown began, said Beyl. Even now, he said, his cell phone “blows up from 6 a.m. to 10 or 11 [o’clock] at night.”

For nearly 11 months, principals, teachers, students and parents have faced many challenges to continue the vital role of Catholic education in the midst of a global pandemic.

Four principals spoke with The Criterion about those struggles—and the blessings and benefits that have risen from them.

‘We were not in this alone’

The challenges began with Archbishop Charles C. Thompson’s March 12 letter announcing the closure of schools “until at least April 5” to slow the continuing spread of COVID-19.

State mandates extended the closures through the end of the 2019-20 academic year.

“From March to May, we had to essentially design a whole new school,” said Beyl.

The same was true for St. Susanna School in Plainfield.

“Our biggest challenge was remote learning,” said Janet Abdoulaye, the school’s principal. “We hadn’t made moves to be an e-learning school.”

But within a week of the March 12 announcement, “our teachers were using [e-learning technology] and they were ready to go,” she said proudly. “That was enormous.”

Whether their schools had a remote-learning plan in place or not, all administrators faced the challenge of the unknown.

“It was beneficial that the archdiocese had weekly Zoom meetings with all the principals,” said Sherri Kirschner, principal of St. Nicholas School in Ripley County. “We were able to get information, clarifications and affirmation we were not in this alone.”

One after the other, the challenges were met, and the school year came to an end.

The stress faced by principals, however, did not.

‘A little bit of everything’

During the summer, several plans had to be made for the start of the next academic year. Each plan offered a different learning format to provide the safest environment for students based on the status of the pandemic.

“We had hybrid and virtual plans, but in-person was our preference,” said Kirschner.

That preference meant more than students and teachers simply returning to school. There were myriad tasks to complete and new procedures to implement, most involving ways to meet state and local COVID-19 social-distancing and safety requirements.

“We had to move the cafeteria to the gym, rethink recess, move furniture out of classrooms to make more room for social distancing, create a new dismissal procedure,” said Kirschner. “Everything you do during the day, you had to go back and think, ‘Is this safe?’ ”

Ultimately, most of the 68 Catholic schools in the archdiocese began the new school year operating in-person, with a virtual option for sick or quarantined students.

“With virtual learning, it’s almost like the kids not in the building are here,” said Beyl. “They’re on the screen, they can hear the teacher, they can interact with kids in the room. We’ve got kids at home and kids in class working on the same group document.”

Some schools, like Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis, implemented a hybrid approach: a rotation of in-person and offsite days varying by grade level, plus an all-online option for those who request it.

“We’re doing a little of everything” to maximize social distancing and safety, said school principal Kari Jost.

‘What we’re asking them to do is kind of crazy’

The option of virtual learning has allowed schools to continue teaching and forming students “without skipping a beat,” said Kirschner.

In fact, at St. Anthony School in Indianapolis, virtual learning and the quick reaction of a teacher even led to a 911 call to save a student, his family and their home from a fire on Jan. 20 (WTHR.com).

While it hasn’t led to a 911 save in New Albany, “Having all this technology is nice,” said Beyl. But it also provided different challenges as well.

“Those unfamiliar with it needed training,” he said, like learning how to connect to and use social meeting platforms. Or getting a white board to display virtually as well as in the room. Or making and posting videos and other material to a learning management system.

“Teachers are now doing two to three jobs at once,” said Abdoulye. “They’re making sure in-person kids are learning, coordinating home learners, and then becoming tech wizards.”

Add the task of finding and learning to use tools “to see what our students are comprehending,” said Jost, and teachers are left with “quite a balancing act.”

“The flexibility I’ve asked of my staff is not fair,” Beyl admitted. “In reality, what we’re asking them to do is kind of crazy.”

More than one principal noted the challenges have brought their staff closer.

“I watched teachers step up and help other teachers learn how to use technology,” said Jost. “For me, it was like this organic professional development.”

The profound gratitude for and pride in their teachers’ response to the challenges rang through from each principal.

And each principal identified the same driving factor behind their educators’ efforts: the students.

“One of the blessings of teaching in a Catholic school is that teachers will work so tirelessly for our kids,” said Jost. “Our educators put a child’s well-being before anything.”

‘Seeking out that community feeling’

Part of that well-being includes staying connected. Continuing a sense of school community was especially important in the first months of the shutdown.

But it required some creativity.

“One thing we did was photo challenges,” said Abdoulye.

For example, St. Susanna students were asked to hold a May crowning service in their home, then submit a picture of the event. Parish pastor Father Robert Hausladen placed the pictures in the church pews to create room for social distancing.

“So people know where to sit, and they can see the photos of the kids,” said Abdoulye.

Soon after the shutdown began, Beyl used the “live” feature of Our Lady of Perpetual Help School’s Facebook page each evening “just to chat with families,” he said.

The virtual evening gathering “caught on,” he said. Soon, the chats turned into time for playing games, trivia quizzes and other types of fun. Eventually, faculty members adopted certain nights to lead virtual activities.

“I couldn’t believe so many people were tuning in,” said Beyl. “We realized our families were seeking out that community feeling that had been so quickly removed from our lives.”

When the academic year ended, the connections continued. A caravan of school staff stopped outside the home of each graduate to deliver a package and wish them well. In July, the kindergarten teachers visited their new students to present them a school pride T-shirt.

Staying connected became easier as most students returned to school for the 2020-21 academic year.

And each of the principals interviewed agreed: If there’s one thing students wanted, it was to return to school.

From ‘shock and scramble’ to ‘seamless’

At Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, “Kids were so eager and excited to be back,” said Beyl. “That’s been a huge motivation to our staff to continue to give their best effort, because the kids made clear from day one they want to be here.”

Jost recalled the change in response of Ritter’s students to the school’s closing.

“When we first shut down and thought it would be two weeks, kids were like ‘Yay!’ ” she said. “Now kids say, ‘I want to be in the building every day.’ ”

The feeling is mutual.

When Jost sees students in the building, “it’s wonderful!” she said. “It’s this ‘Yay!’ feeling. Students and teachers have a new appreciation for each other.”

Beyl agreed. Before the pandemic, he said, “Having the ability to come together as a school community, having the ability to go to Mass together—it had become routine. We realize how important they are now.”

Kirschner sums up St. Nicholas School’s journey since March 2020 in one word: “Wow!”

“We have come so far,” she said. The change from the Ripley County school’s “initial shock and scramble [in March] to what is now a pretty seamless academic day is amazing. … All the changes and new guidelines now seem like we have always done them.”

Kirschner’s final assessment could be said of each of the 68 Catholic schools in the archdiocese:

“Whatever we do, we do our best and let God take care of rest,” she said. “I truly feel the Holy Spirit filled all of us with grace to tackle any challenge and move forward.” †


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