Starting a new school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic requires detailed planning, a willingness to be flexible, and a determination to move students’ education forward while keeping them safe.
Producer Gina Christian speaks with I.H.M. Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott, superintendent for secondary schools of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, to discuss how this academic year will look in the classrooms of the 17 archdiocesan high schools and four schools of special education.
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Inside CatholicPhilly.com – “After COVID, a new kind of classroom”
Gina Christian: Welcome to Inside CatholicPhilly.com, where we explore the Catholic faith as it’s experienced in church and in everyday life. I’m your host, Gina Christian, here with our editor, Matt Gambino. Along with our guests we discuss the Catholic take on everything from sacraments and Sunday mass, to social media and sports, based on CatholicPhilly.com’s award-winning news and commentary.
Thanks so much for spending a few moments with us here at CatholicPhilly.com. I’m your host, Gina Christian. Our editor, Matt Gambino, is on assignment, but he joins us in spirit. Well, we’re getting ready for another school year, and this one will certainly be like no other, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students and parents have had some experience with classrooms amid COVID this past spring, but of course they’re wondering what specifically this coming academic year will look like. To tell us more about that for the Catholic high schools of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, we’re speaking today with Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott. Sister is the superintendent for secondary schools of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and it’s a pleasure to have her here with us to talk about her team’s plan to keep students’ education moving forward safely. Sister, welcome.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Thanks so much for having me.
Gina Christian: It’s a pleasure to have you here, as I said. It’s always great to spend time with the I.H.M. Sisters. Now, I was actually taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph, but I had a cousin who was an I.H.M. Sister, and the I.H.M.’s are well loved in my parish and throughout the archdiocese, Sister.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Thank you so much.
Gina Christian: So Sister, before we talk about the plan for the coming academic year, I want to back up a bit, because when the pandemic began directly impacting our area back in March, you and your team pivoted pretty seamlessly to an online learning model. If I recall correctly, you were able to do that because you’d already had an emergency plan in place, right?
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Partially that’s correct. In a sense that plan had been over five years in the making in our professional development plans.
Gina Christian: Five years.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: We couldn’t have seen a pandemic coming, but we knew that technology integration was pivotal to the education of all of our students. So probably over the past five to 10 years, but five years specifically, our teachers have really been honing their skills on integrating the Google Suite and Google technology within their classrooms so that both online and in-person they could collaborate student-with-student, student groups, student-with-teacher. So that technology had been in training over those years, year after year.
Additionally, many of the schools had already been on a one-to-one, one device to one student. So the technology was there. The devices were there. What we couldn’t have seen before Christmas was a national pandemic or an international pandemic heading our way. But once we saw it getting closer and into the United States, we began to have conversations with our principals that if indeed a quarantine would take place, and initially we thought two weeks, something like that.
Gina Christian: We all did.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: What pieces would need to be in place? What preparations would need to be considered? What meetings in advance would need to take place with administration teams, with academic boards, and with the teachers themselves? So making sure that students had devices and internet, what that capability was, making sure that the teachers understood that if we went fully online, they would then be teaching completely through Google Suite and perhaps Zoom.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: What happened then, during the pandemic and once Governor Wolf closed the schools till the end of the year is, many of the online services became completely free straight throughout, I think, with the idea that perhaps we would become teachers, schools, their subscribers in the new school year. So all kinds of free virtual labs, free opportunities to use other systems other than Zoom, Screencastify, Loom or some of the others. So teachers were not only adapting their classroom, they were experimenting with new methods of technology and new products along the way.
Gina Christian: You could do a little shopping. That’s nice.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: It was indeed a very exciting time for educators, though intrepid, and intrepid because of an international pandemic.
Gina Christian: Well, and at the same time, with that technology that made the developers up their game. So really, a lot of those products probably improved very quickly.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: They most definitely did. Zoom just became better and better and better, and so did the others about how to upload a slide deck so that students could hear the lesson and see the slides at the same time. Breakout sessions within a Zoom, so that students could work in pairs and then come back to class. So that sub-meetings could take place, and then faculties could come together. So we learned really not to cancel, but to adapt. We were continuously challenged with the idea of, how do we not cancel but how do we adapt? Probably one of the most interesting ones of those that I would say is, the students were very sad that their proms were canceled in-person. But in a number of our high schools, and I’ll point out two, the all girls schools, John W. Hallahan and Little Flower, and I believe St. Hubert’s, each one had an online prom. One of them actually had Jerry Blavat as their DJ.
Gina Christian: That’s fantastic.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: So they didn’t cancel, they adapted.
Gina Christian: That’s fantastic. That is, that ties in so much with the message of hope that certainly Archbishop Pérez has communicated throughout this pandemic, that it’s not a time for despair, but a time for moving forward in hope, because we are a people of hope.
Well, let’s take a look at the plan for the archdiocesan high schools, and that is formally titled “Catholic High Schools Compass.” It has four foundations like the four points of a compass. I’m wondering if you can tell us about those.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: I’d be happy to. The four areas that we focused on, number one, and first and foremost before any of the other three, was safety. The health and safety of our staff and faculty and our students became the center point of all planning, or the North Star of all planning. So that whatever decisions were made we look back to, would the safety of the student in any way be impacted, and how could we enhance the safety of the student, the learning experience, the teachers’ experience, and the idea that teachers are safe within their own classrooms. So that was number one.
The other, academic excellence, really had to do with the idea that we needed to make sure that our students received, whether they were totally virtual, in a hybrid, or in-person, that no matter what, they received a full year of the most excellent education. What we saw this past year in reviewing our advanced placement scores is students actually scored higher this year in their advanced placement testing.
Gina Christian: They did?
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: It could be, one of the reasons is during that pandemic time, students were not in part-time jobs and they were not preparing for other pieces. They were not getting maybe distracted. They were at home. So they were more intense about their study. But we were surprised to see how strong the advanced placement scores were. So being at home, although it was socially difficult for the students, and they missed being in-person with their classmates and teachers, actually worked very hard on their academic work. We had fewer failures and a much higher rate of success in advanced placement scores.
Gina Christian: That’s fantastic. Again, it’s one of the upsides of what’s been an understandably challenging time, but there have been some rewards here.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: So many rewards.
Gina Christian: Fantastic. Okay. So we have safety and academic excellence. What are the other two points of the compass?
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Well, one is the enhanced technology. To deliver all of this and to prepare for this school year we knew we had to look as the school year was ending that if, as the school year began, how could we learn from our past experience to have a better experience for our students? So what we saw was teachers used in their learning systems whatever they had learned and were comfortable with. For some, it was Schoology, some it was Google Suite. Some used Loom, some use Screencastify. But in changing class from teacher to teacher to teacher, they may have to navigate different learning management systems. So we made the study and the investment to have one learning management system across our 17 high schools.
Gina Christian: That is Schoology?
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: That is Schoology. That also works very well with the grade book, PowerSchool. It’s under one domain, so that’ll be extremely helpful to students, parents, and teachers alike. With that, then becomes the ability for students to, one of the pieces in school safety is we had to reduce class size. So in reducing class size, the principals and the assistant principals worked with our office on the best possible model. There were two mandates. One was student and teacher safety, and the other was a full year’s worth of education. The plan that they developed was a unique hybrid where there would be cameras in the classroom so that when the student was in class they were learning full-time. But when the student was home, they were participating and learning that next day’s lesson via camera and able to participate in a streaming experience of that lesson.
Gina Christian: That’s not just a passive viewing of it. While you’re in that, it’s the AB cohort, and B is the portion at home. You’re still very much part of that classroom.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Right. You’ll be able to participate. Roll will be taken. Students will be accountable for their work. They also will be able to fully participate. One of the things that students minded is if their teacher was not completely comfortable with Zoom from March until May, then they didn’t have as many in-person, face-to-face interactions. So we were really working hard to increase that and to increase the students’ own satisfaction and interaction. We know that students perform best when they have a personal connection with their teachers. So that face-to-face becomes so important, whether it is in-class or via the connection of seeing the teacher and interacting on screen.
A wonderful example would be in those first weeks of COVID in March, we really didn’t know how we would have our faith life. But very quickly our priests and our Archbishop adapted to a live screening. So worship became very personal, and Mass attendance was very high, both daily Masses and Sunday Masses, because they were able to see, sing along, participate, and pray within their parishes or through the cathedral system with the Archbishop.
Gina Christian: That’s the thing. This experience has happened in a context for them. It’s not just, my classroom is online. My faith life has become more an online experience as well as in-person. These are digital natives too. That’s the other thing to keep in mind. These are students who are already well familiar with a digital life, so to speak. So in some ways it might have been a little less traumatic for them than it was for some of the adults I know, some of the older people.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: It was probably preferred in some senses with them, although not completely, because they like to go to school. They like to be with their buddies. They like to be in-person. But to that, then the fourth part of this compass is faith formation. So when we were working from March till June with our students we knew that instruction was not enough. There were other pieces that had to be of equal merit. One was an awareness of the social and emotional needs of our students. Our guidance counselors were very tuned into that. Our assistant principals for student affairs planning online activities for them. They were continuously throughout the week and the weekend activities that students could participate in to be with one another, and to have that opportunity through whether it was a yearbook development, a newspaper development, a social event, even for our schools of special education. Along with working with parents, what we saw was what the students wanted more than anything was socializing with their classmates. So that became tremendously important. So social-emotional was very important.
Then faith formation was important. Throughout that COVID time having the opportunity during Lent, for instance, for retreat time in May. So the things that Catholic students are just part of their year, we wanted to make sure very intentionally were present. The elementary schools had May processions, the secondary schools and the schools of special education had May crownings and May celebrations, which were posted to the school’s Facebook as well. We sent resources at home to the parents during Lent, especially during the Triduum, so that they could participate, Stations of the Cross. Some schools, some student bodies even wrote most moving COVID Stations of the Cross.
Gina Christian: Incredible, incredible. They were able to integrate the stations and the meaning of Christ’s passion with the current experience.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: What that meant, yes.
Gina Christian: That’s so profound. That’s so profound.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: So all of these then are guiding stars to us of how to plan for our students, that our students and our faculty are the center point, and the faculties have been extremely giving of their time. Not only did they plan in a new forum, in many instances to build up the seniors who were losing their prom, who were losing those big graduation celebrations that they had been anticipating, who were losing those last days of celebration in a school. In each of those, our faculties, school by school, created plans to visit the home outside of their seniors and to deliver to them, in some cases it was a senior t-shirt. In others, it was a lawn sign. In others, it was something to place on their door. But in each of those, school by school, each of our schools reached out and the faculties in a very special way to our students. In one case, more than one case, in baccalaureate masses, the students pictures were placed on the pews. Then as the students watched the live stream of the baccalaureate, they could also see the pictures of themselves on the pews and the school ministers or the celebrants of the baccalaureates spoke very personally to the students of how missed they were.
Gina Christian: So creative and so personal. Certainly, at CatholicPhilly.com, we covered a number of these celebrations, and we saw this in action. I remember seeing Lansdale Catholic on their Twitter account, and I believe their other social media accounts, featured a senior a day. They went through the entire class honoring them. So just incredible. Incredible how the faculty rose to the occasion as well as the students.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: In moving forward then, these pillars of safety, health and safety, of academic excellence, of technology and enhanced technology, and of faith formation, will be our pillars for this school year as well.
Gina Christian: Let’s talk a little bit about the safety, because before we went on air you had mentioned some very specific procedures that are going to be in place.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Each school prepared its own plan in compliance with the Pennsylvania Department of Education using the rubric from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Those have been reviewed and the boards of the local schools are reviewing them, and they’re being placed one by one on the school’s website. But what the parents will see, what you will see if you look, is some very deliberate changes with health and safety in mind. Looking like a prescreening for the students in the morning by their parents and completing of a Google doc, the opportunity for students and faculty alike to have a temperature check before they enter the building, or as they’re entering the building. Throughout the building to have antibacterial sanitizers available so that students can regularly cleanse their hands, and faculty can regularly cleanse their hands. Masks and shields for our faculty, and then required for our students as well.
The social distancing in classroom and in cafeteria. As students who have gone through high school, each of us will remember the change of class time.
Gina Christian: Yes, indeed.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott:We had to think of that most especially, because that’s the time when the class ends that students usually pour out into the hallway and are laughing and talking in crowded hallways. That word crowd became a pivotal point. So not only reducing class size by half with the AB hybrid, but increasing the pass time to almost three times the amount so that the whole school is not changing class at the same time. Rather, that half of the senior class is changing class, and then half of the junior and so on, so that there is that six feet of social distancing.
Gina Christian: That also helps the kids in the B cohort at home, right?
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Exactly. Students at the B cohort at home, when we were planning this for the distancing, we were worried about our students sitting too long in front of a computer. So by having change of class be eight, nine or 10 minutes, that really can allow for students to get up, to stretch, to get a snack before they come back into their next class.
Gina Christian: Excellent. It works out on both sides. That’s great. I want to talk a little bit, if we could, about the schools of special education, because it’s a little bit different for them. There are certainly many precautions in place. Could you tell us how that’s going to work in the fall?
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Well, in terms of social distancing, our schools of special education have very small classes limited to about four to eight students in a class.
Gina Christian: Much easier to space.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Social distancing is not a concern. What instead they will be using is a model similar to what’s going to be used in our elementary schools, which is cohorting. So students in a particular class remain together all day. Visitors will not be coming to the schools. Appointments would be made for parents who wish to see a teacher or to see the principal. Then if possible, that appointment would be completed on phone or on Zoom, and only if absolutely essential would visitors be admitted to the building. Students would be eating in a cohort, perhaps eating in their classroom or eating in a unique section of the cafeteria, if available. Again, the prescreening by mom and dad before they come to school, and then the temperature screening once they arrive in school as well. The limiting of shared materials. So for both our high schools and for our schools of special education, students would have their own materials, would not be sharing with one another.
Gina Christian: Digital textbooks where possible.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Right. For our secondary schools, not only digital textbooks, but virtual lab experiments as well.
Gina Christian: That would have been good for me many years ago. I was not good at titration in chemistry class.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Our schools of special education did particularly well. There was a picture, I don’t know if you had seen it, but it was a first grader at St. Lucy School on a Zoom with her teacher. While she was using the Zoom she was also using her braille reader. Exceptional miraculous work occurred. One of the pieces that we very much want to have is for in our schools of special education, for them to have the personal experience with one another and with their teacher, so that the teaching doesn’t need to necessarily go on at home with the reinforcement from the teacher, but rather it’s occurring in school. Again, use of antibacterial, regular wiping of desks in all of those schools, regular and frequent cleaning of bathrooms throughout the day, and high touch surfaces. Schools are usually cleaned at the end of the school day. We know that that would not be enough to ensure student safety and faculty safety.
Gina Christian: But there will be electrostatic cleaners in the school after school hours, correct?
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Correct. We’ll be using those in the evening when students are not in class.
Gina Christian: Excellent. Excellent. Well, a couple of final points here. For those families who do not feel comfortable with all of these precautions in place with going back to any in-person learning, there’s still that option to remain completely virtual. Is that correct?
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: That’s correct. Both in the schools with special education and in the 17 high schools as well, and I believe in the elementary schools as well, the power schools. That they can elect, parents can elect through contacting the principal to choose 100% virtual. In the case of our secondary schools, which I can speak for, it doesn’t have to be a commitment for the whole year. So parents can elect for a quarter or a semester or the whole year.
Gina Christian: This is really tailored to meet them where they’re at.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Correct.
Gina Christian: Fantastic. If it comes to the point where we all have to go back to virtual learning, there’s the capacity there to go back to that.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Yes, because of our new learning management system enables us all to do a better job, even than we did in the spring with our students five days a week in real-time, interacting with their teachers.
Gina Christian: Fantastic. Well, I have to say, I’m not surprised, because as the product of Catholic school education myself, I can tell you, I have never met, and I am the daughter of a public school educator, but I have never met a more dedicated crew than the folks who teach at our Catholic schools. So it’s not surprising to me that they have more than stepped up to this challenge.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Well, on behalf of the teachers of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I thank you, and I most especially thank them.
Gina Christian: Amen. Now, for more information on the plan, readers and listeners can go to aopcatholicschools.org. There are also a couple of email addresses to which they can direct inquiries or requests for more information. One of those is COVID19@archphila-oce.org. The second email address, which speaks to an earlier point you’d made about spiritual support, is just that: firstname.lastname@example.org. Fantastic. Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott, a pleasure to have you here. I hope you will come back soon and let us know how everyone’s doing in the new school year.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: I’m happy to do that. Thank you for inviting me.
Gina Christian: Thank you for being here. God bless.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: God bless you.
Gina Christian: I’ll turn in my homework, I promise.
Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott: Thanks so much. It was great meeting you.
Gina Christian: So you’ve heard our thoughts. What about yours? Reach out to us and let us know. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter @catholicphilly or visit us online at CatholicPhilly.com. Thanks so much to Matt Gambino, the editor of CatholicPhilly.com. I’m your host, Gina Christian, and until next time, may God bless and keep you.
Matt Gambino: Transforming lives. That’s what the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Philadelphia is all about. Called to service by our Catholic values, we work directly with our neighbors in need to help with the most basic necessities. Our lives are transformed as are hopefully those we serve. Visit svdp-phila.info to see how you can join with us to help. That’s svdp-phila.info.
Gina Christian: This podcast has been a production of CatholicPhilly.com. Music by Dustin Taylor Phillips. For more information, visit us online at CatholicPhilly.com.
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