Arien Blackbird Parker, left, a first grader at St. Cecilia School in Omaha, works with his teacher, Libby Bost, as she teaches a new math concept. Catholic school students across the Archdiocese of Omaha have met the pandemic’s challenges due to the dedication and faith of families, principals and teachers such as Bost. ELIZABETH WELLS

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Faith, hope help students overcome challenges of pandemic

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Catholic school students have run the gamut.

“We’ve gone from scared to frustrated to fairly confident in what we are doing,” said Terri Bush, principal of All Saints School in Omaha, describing how students at her school have responded to the changes in their educational experience brought on by the coronavirus.

“And our new word when we came back January 4 was hope.”

Remote learning and its challenges, the social impacts of isolation, as well as the stress on students, their parents and teachers continue to be strong factors in the pandemic. Changes to routines, the uncertainties surrounding health, parental job loss, financial struggles, political unrest and race tensions compete for students’ attention.

Yet Catholic school students have also proved to be very resilient, thanks to the dedication and faith of principals, teachers and parents – and of the students themselves.

“It’s just difficult. Kids like routines, to know what’s coming,” said Julia Pick, principal at St. Cecilia School in Omaha. “We don’t have that this year. We are feeling that way as adults, so we know it is affecting our kids.”

These stressors figured prominently in decisions by Catholic schools in the archdiocese to go back to in-person learning wherever possible to reduce anxiety for kids, teachers and parents, said Pick.

Many schools, such as St. Cecilia, St. Mary in O’Neill and Archbishop Bergan in Fremont, have resumed full-time in-person learning since school started last fall. Others, like All Saints, have used a hybrid model that involves two groups of students alternating in-person instruction two days each week and remote learning the other three.

Bush explained that the CUES School System, which includes All Saints, Holy Name and Sacred Heart schools, initiated an appeal to upgrade technology last fall. Generous community response provided CUES students with iPads or ChromeBooks and additional hotspots to allow them to access the internet, she said.

School officials also have worked creatively to keep as many routines, traditions and celebrations in place as possible.

“It’s definitely different,” said Cody Havranek, principal at St. Mary School, a pre-K through grade 12 school.

Like other schools, they implemented social distancing and other safety measures to stop the spread of the virus. But they were able to celebrate homecoming on their practice football field last fall. Graduation was held in July with limited invitees, and sporting events still have spectators, albeit at reduced capacity.

“The activities may look a little different, but they are still there. We even had our Christmas concert – virtually,” said Dan Koenig, principal at Archbishop Bergan Catholic School, another pre-K through 12th-grade institution.

ACADEMIC SUCCESS CHALLENGED

The Archdiocese’s Catholic Schools office reported an average six-point drop in reading and eight-point drop in math from January to August 2020.

Tracey Kovar, assistant superintendent for the archdiocese’s Catholic schools, said much of the downturn occurred when all schools were forced to adopt remote learning from March 2020 to the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

Pick said educators at St. Cecilia have chosen not to compare year-over-year test scores. Instead, they are meeting individually with students, discussing results and building immediate goals in areas of challenge. This new approach may prove to be a winner as students understand the “why” behind their work, ultimately improving grades, said Pick.

SUPPORT FOR LEARNING

To further support learning, practices such as restorative circles, an aspect of social emotional learning, are being used. Educators at All Saints pose icebreaker questions to give everyone a voice and the opportunity to feel heard. They often use these conversations to start students’ days, and Bush is even opening teacher meetings with these questions.

“It’s a way to build relationships … we’ve seen an increase in cohesiveness,” she said.

Some schools have had access to mental health professionals from Catholic Charities thanks to CARES Act funding.

Ashley McConnell, a school therapist from Catholic Charities, works in six Omaha schools, including All Saints and St. Cecilia. She sees separation anxiety in some students who are learning in-person and depression in others who learn remotely. She recommends maintaining routines wherever possible and finding creative solutions for staying connected.

FAITH INDISPENSABLE

Catholic faith practices have also been beneficial. “I think we have a leg up because of our faith,” said Pick. “We can teach and talk about God being there for you even, and especially, in these times.”

Koenig agreed, saying he is thankful they have two priests assigned to their school to work alongside school counselors. “These empathetic adults allow us to assess students and help them navigate through challenges,” he said.

He said the best thing his school has done during the pandemic is to preserve its weekly student Masses. “At Mass, (students) are asked to think about what’s going on in their lives – what worries … are you bringing to Mass today? They are encouraged to lay them all on the altar,” Koenig said.

St. Mary students are finding peace by using the intention wall, a board in the theology classroom where students can post prayer intentions. They also write in their prayer journals, which are notebooks used in theology class to write out their reflections, worries and prayer intentions.

“They have more stress and worries certainly and are absolutely relying on their faith to get through this,” said Paula Atkeson, school counselor.

COUNTING BLESSINGS

Reflecting on one’s blessings is also helping. Chief among these, said the principals, is the resilience displayed by students, families, teachers and support staff.

Other blessings have been discovered along the way. Bush attributes All Saints’ smaller class sizes created by their learning model and the empathy fostered by restorative circle practices with enhancing the respect and grace displayed by students to one another and their teachers.

Pick said conversations between students and teachers at St. Cecilia about academics and through restorative practices are fostering better understanding, more engagement and stronger relationships.

Koenig pointed to the many creative solutions they have found at Archbishop Bergan, including one to be used during Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 31 through Feb. 6. Typically, families, alumni and benefactors gather for Mass and a breakfast as a way for students to thank school supporters. This year they will have a drive-through breakfast of coffee and cinnamon rolls instead.

Even with the rollout of vaccines, the principals see normalcy still in the distance, but they said they are hopeful and believe their students are too.

“Everyone is aware it may go longer than expected,” said Pick. “I’m looking forward to (asking) what is the first restriction I can relax on – what is the second.”