Extraordinary steps keep Catholic school students learning
January 21, 2021
Each year, the Catholic schools of the Omaha archdiocese join their counterparts around the country to celebrate what makes Catholic education special during Catholic Schools Week, this year set for Jan. 31 through Feb. 6.
The 2021 theme, “Catholic Schools: Faith. Excellence. Service,” highlights not only the academic excellence that has been the foundation of Catholic education since its beginning, but also the integral role that faith formation plays in a well-rounded education, along with the importance of living out that faith through service.
In its 47th year, Catholic Schools Week is sponsored nationally by the National Catholic Education Association. Students in the archdiocese’s 70 elementary and high schools will mark the occasion with various special events and activities.
In place of the traditional eighth-grade Mass, the 53 elementary schools in the archdiocese will take part in a livestreamed Mass Feb. 4 from St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, with each school represented by a short video clip introducing themselves.
This issue of the Catholic Voice highlights how Catholic schools in the archdiocese are providing for the academic and spiritual growth of more than 18,500 students despite the challenges of the pandemic.
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The Caskey children Grace, Claire, Daniel and Jude are familiar with the routines.
After being dropped off in the morning outside St. Pius X/St. Leo School in Omaha, they line up for temperature checks. Inside, they head for their classrooms and stay there. There’s not much moving around the building or mingling with friends in other classrooms. Sharing school supplies is definitely a no-no.
Their desks are spaced apart, their lunches delivered to their classrooms on disposable Styrofoam trays. They’ve grown used to the required face masks.
Daniel, a third-grader, echoes people everywhere when he says he’s looking forward to the end of COVID-19.
But at this point, his parents, Jason and Kirsten Caskey of St. Leo the Great Parish in Omaha, say they are grateful for the safety protocols that have allowed their children to physically attend school.
“St. Pius/St. Leo is doing a good job navigating the protections so we can have in-person school,” Jason Caskey said. His children’s education during the pandemic has been “going well, but it’s not without its challenges.”
“St. Pius/St. Leo has done a really good job of anticipating issues before they arrive,” he said.
Catholic schools across the archdiocese have been doing everything they can to maintain in-person learning, said Vickie Kauffold, Catholic Schools superintendent.
“We want those kids in person,” she said, so teachers can watch students’ body language, to look in their eyes, and know that they understand their lessons.
Parents, surveyed by the various schools, also have indicated that they want in-school learning.
Standardized testing has revealed that nationally, as well as within the archdiocese, academics have taken a toll during the pandemic, said Megan Fiedler, coordinator of standards and assessments for the archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office.
“It’s not a mystery,” Fiedler said of the data. When schools began remote learning, educators expected to see at least some learning loss.
This year and in the years to come, educators will continue to monitor student progress, to minimize the pandemic’s hit academically, she said, and the return to in-school learning will help make a difference.
The standardized assessments have helped teachers like Sammie Becker, a first-grade teacher at St. James/Seton School in Omaha, to identify students’ gaps in learning and to adapt their teaching to cover those gaps.
First-graders have important skills they must master, Becker said, and “if I notice something is missing, we back up a bit.”
St. James/Seton hasn’t been able to hold all-school assemblies or musical programs this year, which is unfortunate, she said. But on the plus side, it’s allowed more time in the classroom to make up for the lost learning.
David Emanuel, a math teacher at V.J. and Angela Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha, said keeping students engaged was more difficult during remote learning.
Once they were back in the classroom, he found that they had understood the main concepts they were taught, but they needed to brush up on the details.
“Kids are resilient,” he said. “They bounce back and rebound quickly once they get back into a rhythm.”
READY FOR ANYTHING
Throughout the pandemic, schools have had to be ready for a range of learning scenarios.
Teachers continue remote learning for students who’ve been unable to return to the classroom because of health risks in their families, for those who’ve temporarily had to quarantine, and in schools using a “hybrid” combination of at-home and at-school learning.
Teachers everywhere scrambled last spring for the abrupt shift to remote learning, using new technologies within days and teaching from their own homes.
Over the summer and throughout the pandemic, they’ve had to prepare for a range of possibilities, not knowing if or for how long they would be able to have students physically present at school.
Teachers like Mary Holtmeyer, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Pius/St. Leo, have made plans and tweaked them, figuring out new and better ways to present information to their students. They’ve partnered with parents, trying to be as helpful and understanding as they can be with each family’s unique circumstances, Holtmeyer said.
Adjusting to the health protocols has been difficult for students, she said, but they’ve gotten the hang of it.
“It’s definitely been a challenging year,” said Chris Segrell, principal at Christ the King School in Omaha. “We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible while keeping the kids safe.”
“This has been a creative year, I can say that,” Segrell said. “We change, evolve and learn to do better. That’s what we’ve been doing all year.”
Emanuel said teachers at Skutt “came up with unique, innovative ways to show learning” when everyone had to stay home. Instead of pen-and-paper tests, some teachers asked students to make short videos explaining what they knew, boosting their knowledge of a subject to a different level, he said.
Instead of testing geometry skills with written problems, Emanuel had students use objects around their home to determine their volume or surface area.
Before the pandemic, the teachers had looked for alternative ways to assess knowledge acquisition, he said, but the remote learning helped push them along.
PLANNING, PARENTS’ HELP ARE KEY
Parental support has been crucial, Segrell said.
Christ the King parents were given a list of health screening questions to help them determine when to keep children home. Once students arrive at the school, they are given temperature checks. Because of parents’ vigilance, not once has the school encountered a student with a high temperature, Segrell said.
Christ the King maintains an attitude that anyone who walks through the doors could have COVID-19, the principal said. They maintain strict precautions, “because we really want to stay open.”
Planning has been essential, Kauffold said. Principals and other administrators have offered extra support for teachers, who’ve taken on added workloads.
Administrators, parent volunteers, rectory staff and parish priests have pitched in. They can be found screening students as they enter school, watching over them at recess, monitoring them during study halls, delivering lunches to classrooms and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.
“Time is just a precious commodity,” said Kauffold, who herself has helped at schools, delivering lunches and doing what she can.
“Everybody has to be willing to help, and they have been,” said Becker, of St. James/Seton. “Everybody’s gifts have been used to the fullest.”
Collaboration also has been “incredibly valuable” throughout the pandemic, Kauffold said.
She has met with other superintendents and health officials; principals have conferred regularly with each other and with committees of parents and local experts; and teachers have leaned on each other to glean how to best teach remotely, manage their time and keep students engaged.
Becker said that at the beginning of the school year she felt overwhelmed with the dual task of teaching the students in her classroom at St. James/Seton while also meeting the needs of those learning virtually from home.
Assistant Principal Tiffany Howard noticed Becker’s struggles and had her meet with another teacher to pick up practices that were working for him.
Overall, Catholic schools in the archdiocese have seen a 5% drop in enrollment, Kauffold said, with pre-kindergarten programs taking the biggest hit and schools in rural areas faring a little better than their urban counterparts.
But at least the schools have kept afloat.
Nationally, 209 Catholic schools have closed since the 2019-2020 school year, about double the average rate of closings in a year, said Margaret Kaplow, a spokeswoman for the National Catholic Educational Association.
Kaplow said enrollment has dropped 6.5%, but six states – Missouri, Wisconsin, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts – have seen enrollment increases and in some cases waiting lists.
“But those increases are isolated and not a trend that overturns the decrease in enrollment at least not at this time,” she said.
“Catholic schools are 80-85% in person, five days a week and that is driving some families to look to Catholic schools for enrolling their children since about half of the public schools are all virtual or a hybrid,” Kaplow said.
“Where it’s possible, Catholic schools are freezing tuition and soliciting more donors and holding fundraising events to help offset the tuition costs for families already impacted by COVID either by job loss, reduced hours and/or illness-related expenses.”
In the Archdiocese of Omaha, enrollment in Catholic schools is expected to rebound as the pandemic wanes. Some students who have been homeschooled will likely return to their former schools and some parents who’ve taken a financial hit because of job loss or furloughs will likely become more financially secure and able to afford tuition, Kauffold said.
The federal Paycheck Protection Program helped schools tremendously, she said, allowing them to keep paying staff during uncertain times.
Funding from the federal CARES Act also helped, she said, by allowing schools to buy what they needed: electronic devices for remote learning, cleaning supplies, plexiglass to better separate people, nursing staff and mental health care.
More recently, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act was passed, including special funding for emergency assistance for non-public schools. That funding is geared to help schools where they see the greatest needs, Kauffold said.
The pandemic has brought about some good things, things schools might continue after the pandemic is over. St. Patrick School in Elkhorn started the school year with just half the students in classrooms at a time, and the teachers liked it, Kauffold said. It gave them a chance to get to know students better and eased going through classroom rules and routines.
Other schools found better ways to organize drop-off and pick-up logistics, she said.
Kauffold had some good news for students, too. COVID-19 and the ability to have remote learning hasn’t ended snow days. A Jan. 15 blizzard provided a true day off for students and teachers.
Kauffold said she doesn’t think they need the added stress of working from home. She said she’ll be conferring with principals and considering each snow day as it comes. They might go to remote learning if the snow days start to stack up to three or more, she said.
Another benefit: the pandemic has bonded school communities and made nearly everyone including students more appreciative of being able to be inside and learning at Catholic schools, educators have observed.
“Amazingly, we’re already in the second semester, and students are genuinely happy to see each other,” said Emmanuel.
Said Segrell: “I never thought I’d hear kids say they miss school and want to be here, even middle-schoolers.”