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Catholic schools proved successful during challenge of Covid pandemic

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St. Amelia School principal Scott Kapperman and assistant principal Janet Larson look over a protective enclosure which was provided for each student on their desk for the 2020-2021 school year. Photo by Dan Cappellazzo

Just over a year ago the world shut down. There was no St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Buffalo. Wall Street had a drop equaling the Black Monday of 1987. The Theatre District went dark. Sports were canceled. Restaurants closed.

Catholic schools continued, however, they did change. The 34 parish and regional schools overseen by the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools adapted to the closing of the physical buildings by implementing distance learning. Now common, but a concerning new method of teaching back in March 2020. Classes began to be conducted over the internet, while students and teachers stayed home due to lockdown regulations. Teachers used online resource tools such as Zoom, Google Classroom, Google Meets, Seesaw and Schoology to give the students online instruction and interactive classroom settings to have real lessons as traditional as possible.

Tim Uhl, the new superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Buffalo, looks at what happened nationally.

“Most of the Catholic schools pivoted to remote learning last spring,” he said. “I think most of them were more successful than their public school counterparts, because they can be a little more nimble at the local level. We hear story after story of larger districts being unable to get devices out, and having infrastructure, whereas Catholic schools can scramble and get that done.”

Locally, Catholic schools were able to open on schedule in September with each desk safely distanced from one another and plastic partitions in front of each student. Small class sizes made this possible.

The smaller community also allows schools to hear from more parents and respond to their concerns. Parents wanted in-person learning, so the schools made that happen. Only three schools have maintained a hybrid model where half a class comes in two days at the beginning of the week and the other half comes at the end, with Wednesdays off the clean the rooms. The new three-foot distance rule has decreased the need for the model.

The change to distance learning meant teachers had to acquire new skills and new styles of teaching. In order for the schools to open in the fall, they had to be outfitted with partitions and maintain a small class size. One school needed air purifiers. So, the principal asked the parish congregation for $27,000 and received it because the parents wanted that school open.

The hard work paid off. Enrollment is up over 400 new students throughout the diocese.

“Part of that reason is, people looked at the Catholic schools and said, not only are they in person, but they’re giving individualized care and their connected. We’ve seen it in society, we’ve seen it in schools, people are losing connections,” said Uhl.

“Parents have come to realize that they need the schools, and they need their kids in school because they have jobs to do to keep food on the table and roofs over kids’ heads,” said Joan Thomas, the outgoing superintendent. “That point has really been driven home, not only by what we’ve seen, but people have written about it.”

Thomas said through her years of experience, she has seen school as the safest place for children. “School is the place where children feel the safest. They feel comfortable. They get fed breakfast and lunch. They don’t have to worry about any kind of abuse.” Nationally safest part of day.

Uhl calls schools, “Their home away from home.”

Now that we have this technology in place, it probably won’t be going away even if Covid does. Uhl has seen online learning being used by high schools to offer language courses and help students earn advanced credits.

“Teachers have had to learn a new set of skills and aps to bring into their classes that will continue. I think even more we’ll be moving away from simple teacher-centered instruction and more creation and more student-centered,” said Uhl.

“I’m very proud of these schools, because they’ve come a long way since October in many different respects,” said Thomas.  

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