Teachers in Our Lady of Good Counsel School, Moorestown, are using video posts and Zoom calls to meet with students during the coronavirus school closures. Courtesy photo
Teachers in Our Lady of Good Counsel School, Moorestown, are using video posts and Zoom calls to meet with students during the coronavirus school closures. Courtesy photo
Though schools may have been forced to close doors at physical locations for the time being, Diocese of Trenton teachers, principals and students are continuing their studies through long-distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Creating community is part of the DNA of Catholic school administrators and teachers,” said JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools. “Our Catholic school educators are providing wonderful support, compassion and understanding as students work in an alternative classroom setting.”

Among those alternative settings – school lessons being conveyed through online platforms such as Facebook Live, Smart TVs, Zoom calls and more, similar to their public school counterparts.

“With a short window to adjust to an extended school closure, teachers have entered the classroom as learners,” Tier said. “Teachers are sensitive to pacing instruction and providing opportunities for student creativity and differentiation.”

The diocesan Department of Catholic Schools has been providing as much help as possible, including conference calls, daily emails and online guidelines, some of which focus on assigning work; lists of digital tools; ways to support students with little or no internet access; ways to support students at various grade levels, and helpful articles.

Diocesan staff have also shared tools on extranet channels, encouraging teachers to share lesson plans and best practices with their colleagues.

Carla Chiarelli, principal in Our Lady of Good Counsel School, Moorestown, feels it has provided a strong template.

“It makes sure we are cooperating with parents and providing the amount of time students should be working a day; the ways we need to create using online academic websites for instruction and activities,” she said. “But most importantly, that we continue a structure that is adaptable for each family without struggle.”

Online Learning

When Chiarelli arrived at OLGC in 2016, she immediately began working on an online virtual learning plan with technology teacher Suzanne Casey.

“The students want to see their faces, and the teacher/technology preparation has allowed us the ability to jump start unchartered waters so rapidly,” she said. “All credit is given to the staff at OLGC for their focus and determination to make this happen successfully.”

Danielle Hilgetag and Stephanie Tobin are veteran teachers who teach Pre-K three-year-olds and first grade, respectively. They give their lessons live on Facebook each day and wait for feedback – typed in by parents – in the comment section.

For Tobin, the waiting is the hardest part.

“The challenge for me is the actual interaction,” she said. “If I’m asking them a question as I’m reading a book, I’m not getting that direct response, so there’s some waiting time for their mom and dad to type in the comment section. That’s the biggest challenge; getting used to this new norm, how to communicate with each other.”

Tobin was happy to report that she was getting feedback not only verbally, but in the form of photos. For example, she received photos of her students holding drawings of umbrellas in response to her reading lesson on adjectives.

For Hilgetag, the challenge is to maintain the pupils’ focus throughout her lesson.

“I have to keep it light, fun, interesting, engaging and short because they’re three and their attention span in the classroom doesn’t go very long,” she said. “If I move quickly and keep it funny, keep it happy, say things that interest them and keep the videos 20 to 25 minutes, that seems to be working pretty good.”

Ready for Change

In Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, English teacher Donna Mulvaney is interacting live with her students thanks to Christine Mooney, the school’s director of instructional technology. Foreseeing a shutdown two weeks before it occurred, Mooney moved quickly to set up virtual teaching and then worked tirelessly to provide teachers in-person and online training.

This has allowed Mulvaney to interactively share a screen of her plan online for the class to discuss major topics.

“I then send the students to [virtual] breakout rooms, where they engage in a critical thinking Socratic circle,” she explained. “I stop in each breakout room to check on participation and add my two cents. It is here that my student teacher is particularly helpful in that he actually works in a breakout room, monitoring participation and helping students. I bring the groups back to the main session to debrief. The best part of this is our interaction, as it does provide a close simulation to the normal classroom.”

When it comes to giving tests, Mulvaney said, “I ask open-ended, critical thinking questions that defy cheating; I also plan to give more project-based assessments and oral assessments.”

The teacher feels her students have been outstanding during the crisis, but added, that “They are lonely, sad and praying to get back to those uniforms they thought they hated, those hard desks they complained about, and the physical presence of everyone in the Donovan Catholic community.”

Student Perspective

St. John Vianney High School ninth-grader Audrey Bruden knows exactly how that feels, saying, “I honestly didn’t realize how much I would miss school.”

Bruden is missing out on her spring track & field season and, like countless others, unable to partake in other extracurricular activities but is continuing to focus on her schoolwork.

“It’s just really different,” Bruden said, admitting that it’s lonely not to be with other classmates. She added, “You don’t know how this [the pandemic] could happen, why God let this happen. So this is really confusing.”

The Holmdel high school was among Catholic schools in the Diocese prepared to go to an at-home learning platform. In early March, the school was featured on CBS New York for being ready for a possible closure. The news report explained how teachers would be able to upload lessons and “record their voice at home over video instruction and PowerPoint presentations.”

For Bruden, her teachers post 20-minute lesson videos at the start of the day, and students can log on at their leisure, as long as they get their work in by 4 p.m. If students have questions, they email the teachers.

Bruden, an honor student in the school’s Advancement Placement Academy, laughs as she admits sleeping in later than usual is one benefit of learning at home. She is quick to admit, however, that she would trade the later rise to get life back to normal.

“We’ve only been doing this for about a week,” she said in mid-March, “but it feels so much longer. It’s weird.”