Schools find creative ways to teach, foster spiritual growth, and thrive during pandemic
FORT WORTH — While a global pandemic presented many challenges to schools in the Diocese of Fort Worth, educators found creative ways to support learning, encourage community, and continue to thrive in a difficult season.
No one knows exactly what school will look like in the fall because of the unpredictability of novel coronavirus, but plans are underway to bring the students back to campuses while offering virtual options for families who request it.
Melissa Kasmeier, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools and interim principal at St. Andrew Catholic School, said, “I think everyone agrees that we want kids back on campus, but we want to do it in a way that everyone is safe and healthy.”
In March, classes went online via digital platforms like Google Classroom that teachers and students were already using.
Leah Rios, president at Nolan Catholic High School, said their goal as educators has been to continue offering all aspects of a Catholic education adapted to distance learning.
“We were using the tools we had in a unique way,” Rios said.
Rios said that school officials distributed about 30 Chromebooks and internet Wi-Fi hotspots to families without computers at home.
Nolan’s teachers continued grading assignments so students — especially upperclassmen — could make progress on their academic goals. In contrast, many public schools froze grades or implemented a pass/fail system once learning went online.
“Our kids had worked so hard, and [not providing them with grades] is a huge disrespect to our students, their integrity, and what we expect from them,” she said.
Kasmeier said the diocese’s learning specialist Jennifer McNulty provided support to teachers and families to help students who needed extra assistance.
Many teachers met one-on-one with students on FaceTime or other digital platforms to provide support, often in the evenings.
Laura Behee, principal at St. Maria Goretti Catholic School, said the transition from in-person classes to distance learning was seamless. They used Google Classroom for students in second through eighth grades and Seesaw for pre-K through first grade.
Students in the school’s dyslexia program continued to receive individual therapy on Zoom, and teachers checked in often with other students who needed extra help.
One of the keys to student success was a consistent schedule for all classes, Behee said, with a mix of live Zoom meetings and assignments that could be completed throughout the week.
At St. George Catholic School, some students did schoolwork on the Edmodo online platform while families without devices used packets and textbooks, said St. George Principal Nikki Leafgreen.
Teachers provided extra help to students by phone or via Zoom, often in the evening because they required a parent to be present during the tutoring session, Leafgreen said.
Lam Tran of Keller, parent of a sixth-grader at St. George, said she was concerned when she learned the school was going to distance learning but soon became impressed with the creativity and responsiveness of her son’s teachers.
“What the school did in such a short time with creating meaningful lessons on digital platforms was amazing,” Tran said.
Jim and Summer Riney of Benbrook, who have a son and daughter attending St. Andrew Catholic School, said they appreciated all the guidance and encouragement from school faculty.
“St. Andrew was really good about getting us work they needed to learn, but not busy work,” Summer Riney said.
The Rineys’ biggest challenge was helping their two older children with school while keeping their preschooler and toddler entertained. They also had to work around limited devices and increase their internet capacity at home.
Rios said that educators were aware that managing devices and screen time would be challenging.
“Many families have multiple children, and we provided guidance on how you can divide out your day,” Rios said. “We helped them with how to run a homeschool effectively for kindergartners and seniors and all those in between.”
Thankful for Catholic education
Schools also incorporated virtual spiritual opportunities with daily prayers, weekly Mass, Rosaries, and special events.
Jim Riney said that one of the unexpected blessings of having groups online showed up in a Saturday morning men’s Bible study of dads from St. Andrew.
Shortly after the group began meeting online for a virtual Rosary, kids started showing up to pray the Rosary with their fathers. One week the group included 50 men and their kids, a much bigger crowd than they would have had at an in-person meeting.
At St. George, faculty members printed out a photo of every student and taped them to the pews for the May Crowning of Mary Mass led by Father Ronaldo Mercado.
Tran, who watched the liturgy online with her son, said it was truly special.
Summer Riney said, “I’m always thankful we are in a Catholic school with Catholic values.”
COVID-19 also affected the way schools conducted fundraisers.
After schools closed, in-person events moved online.
Kasmeier said St. Andrew was scheduled to have a gala in late March. They shifted to a live virtual event in May run by a school committee. Their auction raised $294,000 and the event raised another $50,000 for tuition assistance. The auction amount was the second highest in school history.
“I would have never expected in a million years it would be that successful,” she said.
Most schools participated in North Texas Giving Day on May 5.
Behee said the event replaced the Boosterthon Fun Run the campus had planned for May.
The school raised $14,500, all of which went to tuition assistance.
Kasmeier said that schools in the diocese are working to increase their tuition assistance programs to help families impacted by COVID-19 job loss or illness.
Enrollment for the coming school year is mostly stable, despite uncertainty in the economy, school officials said.