Donahue Academy of Ave Maria began distance learning March 24, 2020, for middle and high school students. (COURTESY PHOTO)

Catholic School online education ramp up

Venice  |  An unexpected two-week Spring Break for the thousands of Catholic School students across the Diocese of Venice, because of the pandemic, caused a dramatic pivot to online learning.

Ben Hopper, Diocesan interim superintendent of Catholic Education, working closely with Bishop Frank J. Dewane and the Diocesan school board, acted decisively in early March when restrictions limiting gatherings larger than 10 people went into effect.

The first move came when the state extended a planned Spring Break scheduled to end March 20 to end March 30. It was decided that is was appropriate for Diocesan Catholic Schools, which had a long weekend March 13-16, to turn the week into an early spring break and then to use the extra week to prepare to transition to online instruction.

This concept was reinforced when on-campus classes for all Florida schools were suspended until at least April 15.

Each Diocesan Catholic School provided students and families with specific details and expectations for the distance learning and virtual instruction.

Hopper noted in a March 19 letter announcing the extension of the campus closure that, “this is an ever-evolving situation” and updates would be provided as necessary.” He continued by noting “these actions were taken to ensure the safety of faculty, staff, students and families, which is always a top priority at Diocesan schools.”

“Our schools and their teachers have put in countless hours to ensure that we provide a rigorous Catholic education as we transition to distance learning,” Hopper said. “We have seen extraordinary collaboration and creativity from our faculty and administrators. The eagerness and excitement of our students and teachers are palpable.”

Acknowledging that there may be some anxiousness about the unknown of this transition, Hopper added “we will embrace this challenge as we do every day in our schools with an open mind, a willing heart, and a trusting soul. We must believe, as it is written in Philippians 4:13, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Let the adventure begin.”

Hopper praised and thanked the teachers for their selfless service as they worked days, nights and even weekends to modify their lesson plans for fun and memorable virtual learning experiences. He also thanked the school staff and administrators for reallocating precious time and resources to effectively respond to the challenges. To aid in the transition from live classroom instruction to a distance learning environment, books, handouts and other learning material were collected for parents to pick up throughout the break.

Teachers conducted a number of collaborative sessions to help create online lesson plans that adhere to the high academic standards and immersive interactive activities that our students enjoy, and parents expect. Sessions such as these took place throughout the Diocese, with each one developing an effective strategy to help students and teachers stay connected to their Catholic school community.

Hopper thanked parents, guardians and families for their patience, understanding and support during this transition. Finally, he added, “I thank the students for their courage and confidence to stand united in mind, body and spirit and for their willingness to learn in new and exciting ways.”

The upper grades of Donahue Academy of Ave Maria had a head start on the rest of the Diocesan schools by returning to the virtual classroom on March 23. This occurred because the school Spring Break started earlier, allowing the faculty and staff the time needed to accomplish the necessary work and training for virtual learning.

One parent noted: “What Donahue is doing, having the classes in real time, live, is great. It allows the kids to get out of isolation and be with their classmates virtually, in real time. This is so much better than what Collier (County schools) is doing which is just posting assignments. Thank you. Everything has been so well organized and proactive also. Kudos to you and your staff! Thank you again!”

Stories from across the Diocese

During the unexpected break, the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco, which run St. John Neumann Catholic High School in Naples, initiated an #sjnquarantinechallenge. Each day the Sisters will post a challenge for students to complete. Students were then asked to post themselves doing the challenge by 7 p.m. each day. Chosen winners will receive a $10 Amazon gift card and each participant for the day earned 10 points for their house. 

This is important as Neumann is structured in a House system of student government, where students are assigned houses at the beginning on the year. As the year progresses, they can earn points for participation in a variety of activities. The first challenge was to post a video of themselves doing an Irish jig in honor of St. Patrick’s Day or post a photo of where they are finding beauty in the midst of this uncertain time.

St. Mary Academy in Sarasota has a regular ceremony honoring its students as Rising Stars. The faculty and staff of the school for students with special learning needs decided that a cancelled ceremony was an excuse for a drive-by parade. Visits were made to students and the teacher-of-the-month.

St. Ann Catholic School in Naples encouraged students to participate in a Homeschool Spirit Week COVID-19 style. Each day students were encouraged to be creative, such a superhero day – when students were to dress as a hospital worker, first responder, grocery worker or other essential personnel. One dressed as a scientist, another dressed as a Publix employee and firefighter combined, and still another dressed as an anti-coronavirus, and much more.

These were just a few examples of the effort take on by the Diocese of Venice Education Department, as well as by the faculty and staff at the 15 schools who worked tirelessly to ensure that the quality education expected continues in the best way possible.