Nearly every school building in the country has now closed to help stem the spread of coronavirus. For many schools, including my own Partnership Schools network of Catholic schools, today ends a tough second week of “schooling without school buildings.” With this unprecedented—and unplanned for—mid-year shift to distance learning has come a real-time R & D effort in our schools and schools across the country to figure out how to help students continue to learn and grow, even if they are not able to return to their buildings before year’s end.
The pressure feels enormous. Schools have long been—and remain—the center of the communities they serve. And teachers who were already doing their utmost to meet kids’ needs must now strain to shift their work dramatically to meet the challenges of this new era of remote teaching and learning.
At the same time, I have witnessed an amazing level of adaptability, care, and perseverance from our teachers and school teams as they face this new reality. I’ve also seen a burst of collaboration across school systems as we all seek to learn from each other as we create new ways of building vibrant school communities.
At Partnership Schools, we are borrowing heavily from colleagues around the country while also working to maintain a uniquely Catholic approach to schooling without walls. To that end, our approach to remote learning is built on a three-part foundation:
- We are communities first and foremost.
- Academic learning requires focus.
- Counter isolation with solidarity.
Communities first and foremost
Much of the national conversation surrounding remote learning has naturally focused on academics: how to ensure students continue to learn and grow in the knowledge and skills that are schools’ traditional responsibility. Yet as we shift from in-person to online, we asked ourselves not simply how to maintain instruction, but how to do this in ways that retain the partnership of our families and ensure that our learning community remains strong.
For more than 200 years, Catholic schools have been vital, community-building institutions that have not only educated children—but have also knit together neighborhoods and helped build social capital in even the most struggling communities. They have done this, in part, because of their focus on relationship building and service.
That’s why, today more than ever, our school teams are thinking creatively about how to strengthen community. As one example, because even families that don’t have computers or routers often have an adult with a cell phone and data plan, our teachers and leaders are using Instagram Live, Facebook Stories, and YouTube to stream morning meetings, to host live P.E. classes, and to share community prayer. And our entire community has asked how they can best support each other by donating money and sharing resources when needed, and by praying for all those affected.
Moreover, when it comes to developing plans for academics, we’re thinking both about what our students need and about ways to leverage academic structure and routine to support parents who have suddenly found themselves trying to manage homeschooling while also working from home, doing part-time work, or, sadly, not working at all.
Academic learning requires focus
With community-first in mind, we are viewing our academic plans through two lenses. First, what is manageable and practical for families. To that end, we quickly surveyed all families to make sure we had a clear and up-to-date understanding of how many families had internet access, how many had workable devices for their children, how many had multiple devices to accommodate both parents and children, and who was managing childcare throughout the shutdown. This helped each of our school leaders paint a picture of the level of learning support students have at home. Now, our principals continue to survey parents to gauge whether the support we’re giving is meeting students’ needs, determine whether they need more, and sense whether folks are feeling overwhelmed.
Second is the curriculum lens. Our seven schools follow a shared curriculum and pacing guide across all grades and core content areas. This gives our instructional model day-to-day coherence in normal times and positions us well to prioritize content and adapt pacing guides in this new era of remote learning.
Our Vice President of Academics, Maggie Johnson, outlined the guiding principles that shape our approach to remote instruction:
- Remote learning isn’t always online. In “normal” times, we use technology purposely and sparingly. That’s why, for our schools, remote learning means finding ways for our students to do significant work without spending too much of their day looking at screens. That includes reading books that are part of our core curriculum, asking students to do math practice with paper and pencil, and writing. We’re harnessing the internet’s power, including tools like Google Classrooms and occasional extra online math practice, but we’re avoiding relying on screens for what can be better done with real books, paper, and pencils.
- Quality over quantity. We aren’t trying to re-create a school experience at home. That wouldn’t be practical for most of our families, nor is it possible, considering how important our teachers are to driving student mastery of core content. Instead, we have worked to prioritize a few things that are most essential at each grade level—phonics in the early grades, building procedural fluency and automaticity of math facts across all grades, etc.
- We are communities of faith. While churches are closed, it’s more important than ever for our schools to harness the internet to bring our communities together to pray. Each school has built religion instruction into its remote learning plans, and each school comes together regularly in some way to pray, meditate, and celebrate.
For a sense of what this looks like from a teacher’s perspective, view our first “Academic Spotlight,” which shows how one middle school English language arts teacher is shifting his planning to adapt to this new era.
Counter isolation with solidarity
Catholic social teaching emphasizes the principle of solidarity: We recognize others as our brothers and sisters, and we build relationships that sustain even through the most difficult times.
All of our work through this crisis is focused not simply on what we’re doing, but on who we are serving. To that end, we reach out to our families regularly—and individually—to check on their welfare. Our counselors remain connected to the children in their caseloads. And our teachers view their interactions with students not just as opportunities to hold students accountable for learning, but as opportunities to strengthen classroom communities, relationships with parents, and connections even in a time of physical distance. That’s why we have begun tracking how often members of the school community have spoken to each of the families we serve—so that we can ensure none of our students is left behind.
Like every other school in the country, we have embarked on an unplanned for, unsought, and untested experiment. But we believe that by keeping our core values front and center, we can work together to ensure that every member of our community feels safe and supported. And we believe that, despite the struggles we all face together, we will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever.