Catholic schools working on longer-term distance learning


Catholic schools made immediate transition, now working on longer-term distance learning



When diocesan Catholic school communities transitioned from classroom learning to distance learning in mid-March, few people anticipated that the “new normal” would last for the remainder of the academic year.

Because all of the schools were prepared for distance learning — even though the plans were developed for a short-term closure due to winter weather, not a worldwide pandemic — the transition was immediate.

Pennsylvania announced the closure of all schools effective March 16 and later extended the closure through the end of the academic year.

“We did not lose any time,” said Dr. Maureen Marsteller, superintendent of Catholic schools, noting that diocesan Catholic schools were ready March 16. “What we have had to do is adapt to a prolonged closure. All of our schools will provide 180 days of instruction.

“I am pleased with how the diocese’s Catholic education community quickly came together to make sure we could provide a sound education for our students,” she said. “I am most pleased that we have been able to do this while maintaining our Catholic identity. We are offering an education that incorporates prayer on a daily basis and includes our religion curriculum.”

Maintaining Catholic identity has been important to principals and parents, too.

“I pray with the kids every morning, and our teachers connect with them in prayer. We have been able to share our diocesan Masses every week. Connecting through our faith has been very important,” said Joseph Rice, principal of Aquinas Academy, Greensburg.

His primary goal is to keep things as normal as possible for students and connect as a Catholic school community.

“I feel like we have done that. Normal seems to have changed 1,000 times since the first distance learning day,” he said. “We have to make sure that what we are doing is all about students learning in Christ’s light.”

He said that requires a lot of communication between the school and their students and families, and handling challenges as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Some of the challenges were solved by providing families with resources such as computers and mobile hot spots, and some have been met by the school’s counselor, reading specialist and math specialist, Rice said.

Joe and Amanda Giacobbi are pleased with the distance learning process for their son, Joey, a first-grader at Queen of Angels Catholic School, North Huntingdon.

“Queen of Angels has been phenomenal in setting us up for success,” said Amanda, citing the daily lesson plans they receive with notes on what points to emphasize with their child.

“I appreciate the fact they were prepared for something that there was no way to be prepared for,” she said.

Joe and Amanda both work from home and have learned how to accommodate schoolwork throughout the day with a 2-year-old, Henry, who wants to be involved.

“When the religion class assignment was to pray a decade of the rosary, Henry prayed with Joey,” Amanda said.

Joe and Amanda said they are thrilled that Catholic identity remains a part of Joey’s daily learning.

“He learned about the Stations of the Cross, and we have been watching the bishop’s Masses,” Joe said.

Joey talked about his scavenger hunt, how he has learned to be on a video conference with classmates, and how he looks forward to the interaction with friends. He has done a morning announcement.

“I do my homework during the day with Mom and Dad,” he said.

Scheduling has been critical for the success of distance learning at the Althof household.

Ben is principal of Greensburg Central Catholic Junior-Senior High School, and his wife, Tiffany, is the enrollment coordinator and physical education teacher at the school.

They are doing their jobs from home and managing the distance learning with five school-age children: Elliott “Ellie” and Jonah at GCC, along with Nolan, Willa and Frances, who all attend Queen of Angels Catholic School.

Tiffany calls it a balancing act.

“You gain experience through the process,” she said. “When we are working at the same time, we have to make sure everyone else is set.”

Ben and Ellie begin their day with a 3-4 mile run, then he answers emails from the prior evening before meetings begin.

There are multiple meetings about events particular to a high school, especially those for seniors. But, due to the uncertainties about government mandates and when and how they will be adjusted, it is difficult to develop final plans.

“Nothing is set,” he said.

He says GCC’s success has been because the school has had the necessary technology for distance learning for five years, and teachers and administrators have continued to learn how to use it.

“I am most pleased that everyone has been working to a common goal of doing what is best for the students,” he said. “Our teachers, staff, families and students have all been flexible and understanding. People have been patient.”

Faith has remained part of the educational experience at GCC through the efforts of Father Tyler J. Bandura, chaplain, and Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Sister Christine Kiley, campus minister, he said.

“We have had daily prayer services and were able to put together a video of our Tenebrae service before Easter,” Ben said.

His children stay in touch with friends through FaceTime.

“I am looking forward to getting back in the classroom,” Ellie said. “I really miss it.”

Rice also misses being in the school building and has been surprised at how much he has missed the sounds of the school.

“As a principal, you experience the silence of the summer,” Rice said about working in an empty school during summer vacation.

“But it is odd to hear silence in the school in April. I have really come to appreciate the sound of learning.”

Marsteller said, “Education has changed, and we will include these new technologies into future educational plans and processes.”

While recognizing the advantages of technology, Marsteller said teachers and administrators have also found that some students work better in a classroom environment.

“Our teachers are helping students learn in the way they are best capable of learning,” she said.

Joey, left, and Henry Giacobbi pray the rosary.

Aquinas Academy Principal Joseph Rice reads Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” during a teleconference with students.


Subscribe today!