Catholic Schools Go Virtual!

ORLANDO | On March 30, more than 14,000 students in Catholic Schools throughout the Diocese of Orlando experienced eLearning—a new way of continuing education that is engaging, exciting and digital. Using games, videos, and software that even allowed students to “hang out” during lunch, the first day was fun, interactive and filled with happy faces, as seen throughout social media.

Faculty are using a variety of programs to bring classrooms to life in students’ homes in a creative way. Prior to launch, administrators and staff tailored lessons into an electronic format, created educational packets for pick-up, and connected with the school community via any online channel possible. Students who didn’t have a computer at home were given one to borrow.

As educators united in faith, the emotional impact the void of face-to-face interactions might have on students was a consideration. To maintain continuity, Nicholas Pavgouzas, principal of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in St. Cloud, took over the school’s STAN (St. Thomas Aquinas News) network to address students virtually with morning prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and daily announcements. “We feel it is vital to keep students as close to their normal school day as possible and STAN is something our students look forward to each week!” said Pavgouzas. “Most important is the emphasis on staying connected spiritually and emotionally with our students. The greatest blessings of Catholic education are the incredible relationships the teachers have with their students and an education that is centered around our faith and Christ’s love for each child on our campus.”

That faith and love is still on display despite social distances. Teachers have made inspiring chalk art in students’ neighborhoods to spread hope. They’re sharing well wishes with the nearby residents of Bishop Grady Villas, an assisted living community that supports persons with disabilities achieve greater independence and spiritual growth.

Anthony Gutierrez, principal of Holy Redeemer Catholic School in Kissimmee, created a video to help ease any anxieties parents have about learning at home. A special landing page added to their website provided parents with resources to facilitate distance learning. Philip Gorrasi, principal of St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic School in Ormond Beach is staying in touch through weekly newsletters. He offers tips for progress and ways to accompany students who may be having a hard time. The first letter included this advice: “Journaling is a wonderful way to process emotions, feelings, questions, etc. Have the children keep a daily journal detailing their experiences during these weeks at home. Let the journal be in whatever form they’d like- writing, typing, pictures. Once we are back to ‘normal,’ store the journal away and take it out and share it with them in a few years. Make sure you are part of it so it becomes a family heirloom.” He encouraged families to take advantage of the extra time with one another to cook together, exercise, and do service projects.

Donna Witherspoon, principal of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Melbourne said a particular challenge is finding ways to assist students with special needs online as they learned new software. Accustomed to having one-to-one aides with them, parents boldly stepped into that role. Through individual chats and creative ideas, parents and students rose to the occasion. “Everyone is doing well and we’re getting mostly positive feedback,” said Witherspoon. She is making a point of calling parents herself to help those who are struggling. Witherspoon is most surprised with the “faith component”. She explained that pre-k student, Ethan, sent in a video and suggested that students lead prayer. She loved the idea and integrated it into the new online daily schedule. “Students are sending in prayers and saying how great it is to see their friends leading them,” she said. Students also sent in photos of themselves participating in the livestreamed Mass with captions expressing their gratitude.

At Blessed Trinity Catholic School in Ocala, to keep students motivated to meet their math and reading goals, teachers continued to go over their Wildly Important Goals (WIGs) with WIG Wednesday where students track their goals and celebrate their progress. Carol Bragoli’s third grade class held a virtual WIG Wednesday meeting on Zoom. The kids wore their wigs and danced to Celebration, congratulating all students who increased their reading level for the month of March. Principal Megan Losito noted, “I think this is important to the distance learning piece because it shows that we are not stopping. We are going to continue to track our goals and be here for one another.” Students cheered and clapped for their friends on screen.

As with any change, some schools might have faced a couple of hiccups here and there, but schools delivered instruction as planned and students handed in assignments and completed their work. Many schools allowed a 24-hour period to turn in assignments. Families with multiple children were grateful for the flexibility.

At Morning Star Catholic School in Orlando, which serves individuals with special needs, Principal Alicia Abbey echoed the same issue as other principals… some stumbling blocks getting parents logged in, and she doesn’t always have the answer, but will go out of her way to find out. What makes Morning Star different is the therapy aspect of the services they offer. Abbey said most parents have opted to do teletherapy – online delivery of speech, occupational, and mental health therapy services via live video conferencing. She said the key is to maintain routines, as much as possible. The students are enjoying seeing one another online and participating in the Angel Walk – a fundraiser where students usually walk laps on a track. In light of the changes, students walk around their neighborhoods and send in photos of their adventures.

Having lived through Hurricane Katrina, Latrina Peters-Gipson, principal of St. Andrews Catholic School in Orlando agreed routine and seeing one another is critical. As students and parents feel the pressure that change can bring, Gipson urges “to remain steadfast in our faith and prayer and keep our eyes on God… take the faith of a mustard seed and watch it grow from there.” To reduce anxiety, guidance counselor, Rachael Zurita, is sending out positive messages daily and asking students how they are doing.

A part of Catholic school’s DNA, principals continue to hold diocesan schools to a higher standard. In a letter to parents, Superintendent Henry Fortier said, “As we know from our faith, we are united as the Body of Christ regardless of distance or circumstance. We will continue to fulfill our mission to provide a faith-filled education and to pray as one Body of Christ through these uncertain and challenging times.”

He assured those families participating in state scholarship programs, Step Up, Gardiner and McKay know that these programs will continue to be fully funded. If parents have been affected by layoffs or have find themselves in need of financial assistance through these programs, they have been asked to speak with the school principal immediately. “It is our goal to keep our Catholic education family together in this time of challenge.  We are here for you and your family!” added Fortier.

Following the guidelines set by Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education, in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, all Catholic schools will remain closed until at least May 1.

By Maria Del Amo and Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic April 1, 2020