St. Catharine’s catechist Jean Berardi, whose children also attended the parish’s online summer religious education classes, made PicCollages of her students’ work. Courtesy photos
St. Catharine’s catechist Jean Berardi, whose children also attended the parish’s online summer religious education classes, made PicCollages of her students’ work. Courtesy photos
With continuing COVID-19 limitations in place, the Diocese of Trenton’s parish religious education programs had a decision to make: whether to go ahead with summer instruction, and if so, what that might look like.

Following a virtual academic end-of-year semester, many parishes decided to follow suit and hold their religious summer academies online. The overall response was one of gratitude.

“I was very pleased with the Virtual Summer Program,” said Jennifer Chiusano, parishioner of St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel, whose daughter attended the parish’s online academy. “I am grateful that this was offered since we are not sure of what the fall will bring.”

Jean Berardi, catechist and parent of children also in St. Catharine’s program, agreed. “They all definitely missed the social aspect of seeing other children in person and actual classrooms in the church this summer, but given our current situation in the pandemic, I think we had the best-case scenario,” she said. “I’m glad our children could still learn religious education this summer.”

Berardi taught third grade virtually, while her children attended religious education for third, sixth and seventh grades.

Online Shift

Joining St. Catharine’s program as religious education coordinator in January, Michelle Angelo was looking forward to experiencing her first summer program at the parish. Then the pandemic hit.

“I have served as a catechetical leader in parishes with summer programs before, so I was aware of how to plan and prepare for the program,” Angelo explained. “However, when we realized we would have to move to virtual learning, the first thought was ‘this cannot be done.’”

After taking it to prayer, as well as discussions with the pastor and meetings with Denise Contino, diocesan director of the Department of Catechesis, and other catechetical leaders, “I felt supported and quickly switched gears to planning mode,” she continued. “Listening to [their] advice and ideas … I discovered that we can take this obstacle and make it an opportunity.”

St. Catharine used the Catholic Brain religious education program, which provided an online classroom for all catechists as well as many additional Catholic resources to supplement the primary textbook curriculum. Berardi called the platform “an amazing way to post lessons on the calendar and communicate with parents by email. We could] supplement lesson plans with enrichment and extension activities … we all had webinar training for the website.”

Catechists in St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton – many of whom are teachers by profession – were poised to make the online switch. Although added to the challenge was the transition to a new online program from Sadlier Publishers, “Christ In Us,” there was ample help available from the publisher’s program representative.

“[I attended] several online classes with my catechists and staff, showing us how it worked,” explained Linda Mueller, St. Joan of Arc’s director of religious education. “They talked us through the whole program, and they’re doing it now with other parish catechetical leaders as they are going online, too.”

Challenges and Successes

Angelo believes the most difficult aspect of online religious education was the ability to adapt to a new model. 

“As a catechetical leader, I understand the importance of covering the curriculum in the summer program and all the other opportunities you want to provide to the children during that time. I had to learn to be more flexible in my expectations and focus on what it is we really want the children to gain from this experience.”

Other challenges were more logistical: what teaching platform to use, how to train catechists when in-parish meetings are not an option, and how to safely provide a curbside pick-up for materials.

Mueller found the change from in-person to online while simultaneously changing curriculum, especially with the coronavirus news in flux, made planning a challenge.

“The hardest part for me was Google Meet!” she admitted. “But the parents and pastor were very supportive – that’s a big help right there. A hard situation became a very positive experience.”

Success stories included parental and pastoral involvement as well as the communication tools for both St. Catharine and St. Joan of Arc Parishes.

“We would start our day at 9 a.m., go to Mass on livestream with [St. Joan of Arc] pastor Msgr. Rich LaVerghetta and [parochial vicar] Father Jorge Bedoya,” Mueller said. “They would pick a quote out of the Gospel and talk about it in the homily, then ask kids to meditate on and talk about it in class.”

Using staggered Google Meet times, children and catechists – and sometimes parents – would open in prayer, talk about the quote, then proceed to live online classes until 11:30 a.m.

Meanwhile, parents could log in and check their students’ progress and grades, and request more time to work on specific assignments if needed.

Angelo said the great success of St. Catharine’s program “is the involvement of parents in this format … they helped their child complete assignments in Catholic Brain platform.”

St. Catharine’s classes were not live, but a combination of catechists’ uploaded videos, virtual bulletin boards and screencasts – allowing students and parents to access the assignments at their convenience. Some catechists did occasionally use Zoom-type meetings to meet as a live class, though not mandatory, Angelo explained.

“My daughter’s catechist, Susan Hammer, was absolutely great,” Chiusano said. “She did virtual meetings with the class, had us set up a prayer table, posted lessons and homework daily, and emailed the parents every day with what to expect … I do feel my daughter really benefited from this, especially during this pandemic when we need our faith more than ever.”