Superintendent: Catholic school teachers responding ‘heroically’ to changing times

Students at the Academy of the Sacred Heart give a “thumbs up” while remotely attending their AP History class through a Zoom video call. Across the Archdiocese of Detroit, students and teachers have adapting quickly to their new remote learning environments. (Photo courtesy of the Academy of the Sacred Heart)

Local educators say distance learning is ‘very different,’ but committed to making the best of a difficult situation during COVID-19

DETROIT  This week marks the beginning of a new normal for the Archdiocese of Detroit’s schools, as teachers and students embark together into the remote classroom because of growing concerns over COVID-19. 

Last week, the archdiocese announced the closure of schools to allow for deep cleaning and to give faculty and staff time to consider how to handle potential further closures and curriculum adjustments. 

However, on the evening of Thursday, March 12, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order closing all public, private and boarding schools in the state of Michigan through April 6, and on Monday, March 23, closures were extended until April 13. 

In a letter to parents, teachers and students March 23, Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, said the situation is “dynamic” and that the Detroit area’s 87 Catholic schools “are ready to complete this academic year via distance education technology.”

“Archbishop (Allen H.) Vigneron and I are especially proud of the thousands of Catholic educators that spent all of last week developing detailed, methodical, and effective distance learning plans so that all of our schools are well prepared to meet this challenge starting today,” Kijewski wrote.

During the week following the governor’s initial announcement, schools scrambled to figure out the logistics of remote teaching and learning. While some schools such as the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills were ready to go almost immediately, others had to figure out how to provide their students with the resources needed to work from home. 

A screenshot of the Google Classroom interface being used by students at Everest Collegiate High School & Academy. Students are able to access schedules, note and lessons from this platform as well as submit their completed assignments. (Photo courtesy of Everest Collegiate High School & Academy) 

A student from St. Clare of Montefalco School works on an assignment from home March 23. 
Everest Collegiate High School teachers have been busy adapting to online lessons. (Facebook photos)

“We know that a lot of our parents don’t have access to the internet, or if they do, it’s on a laptop for mom’s work so it is not something that is in the house every day,” Karina Lepkowski, principal of Most Holy Trinity Catholic School in Detroit, told Detroit Catholic

Most Holy Trinity sent workbooks and worksheets home for students to use, though there are some online components for students to interact with their teachers. 

“We are wondering what is going to happen with the engagement of the kids,” Lepkowski said. “Some kids are going to be left home alone so they will have to work through this themselves. Some of them will have fully engaged parents, so it will be a wide spectrum.” 

Lepkowski acknowledged that while the changes are somewhat disruptive, teachers are used to adjusting their style on the go. 

“They are adapting anyway in a normal situation because we have different kids every year, and some concepts are harder than others to teach,” Lepkowski said. 

At the Academy of the Sacred Heart, teachers had to quickly adapt their lesson plans to teach their students via Zoom, Google Classroom, OneNote and other platforms as substitutes for the normal eight-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week, face-to-face classroom interaction.

“It is very different to be virtual rather than in the classroom,” said Katrina Hamilton, who teaches high school math and physics at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. 

“From a pedagogical side, it’s hard to think of how I’m going to do this if I am not there,” Hamilton said. “How do I put them in groups for small group discussion? How do I observe the different discussions so I have a sense of what’s happening, and how do I guide that? It’s much harder to do virtually, and trying to figure out substitutes or alternatives for that is difficult and a lot of work.”

While some students are used to doing some of their work online, the adaptation to 100 percent remote learning has required teachers to think outside the box. 

Academy of the Sacred Heart math and physics teacher Katrina Hamilton works at her home teaching station. (Courtesy of the Academy of the Sacred Heart)

Ann Crowley, principal at St. Clare of Montefalco School in Grosse Pointe Park, said her teachers had to learn how to simplify their lessons in order to make them manageable and easy to navigate remotely. 

“The teachers are being very flexible,” Crowley said. “The staff worked beautifully to simplify (lessons). They had to put it into a very simplistic form, but the lessons are there.”

Because not all students have equal internet access, St. Clare of Montefalco gave students tablets that are connected with Sprint data technology at all times, eliminating the need for in-home wifi.

Matt Mileski, an English and computer coding teacher at Everest Collegiate High School and Academy in Clarkston, said he expects a certain amount of emotional fatigue to set in for students, and teachers will have to adapt. 

“I am building my class each week, adapting to what I am seeing and how I can best continue to educate them,” Mileski said. 

If schools remain closed for longer then originally anticipated, educators will have to adapt further, primarily when it comes to testing and assessment, Mileski said.

“Testing is considerably harder in a remote learning situation,” Mileski said. “You can’t really test the knowledge of a thing; you have to much more effectively test the application of the knowledge.”

When it comes to assessing students’ progress, he believes the essay will prove to be a useful tool for educators. On the flip side, if using methods such as multiple-choice, teachers will have to accept that students are effectively taking “open-book” tests. 

Academy of the Sacred Heart third-grade student Santino Visocchi works with his classmates on a shared Google Doc at his in-home school station. (Courtesy of the Academy of the Sacred Heart)

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While a March 20 memo from the Michigan Department of Education suggested online learning wouldn’t count toward classroom time for the state’s public schools, Kijewski quickly countered that Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit are exempt from that decision — and that teachers’ and students’ hard work won’t go unrecognized.

“I thank all of our teachers, parents, and students for their resiliency and dedication given this developing situation, as they begin distance learning next week with the same dedication and rigor found in the classroom,” Kijewski said. “As Superintendent of Schools, please know our schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit will continue with our distance learning plans and this instructional time will count toward our instructional hours.”

Kijewski added teachers and principals have responded “heroically” to the rapidly changing education landscape.

Though graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020 will likely be impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, Kijewski added current seniors’ school careers “will not end this way.” 

“It will be some time before we know the specifics for formal graduation ceremonies, but we will do our utmost to give your achievements and time in our Catholic schools the fullest celebration possible,” Kijewski said.

While Hamilton said she is impressed by how well teachers have adapted to remote learning, she still misses her students — as do teachers across the archdiocese.

“It would be nice to see them in person, but I am still talking to them like I would,” Hamilton said of her students at Sacred Heart. “We are still meeting at our normal class times, so at least I know they are doing OK and they are there and I get to see their faces.”