The arrival of COVID-19 pushed school administrations around the country into unknown territory. Almost a year later, the challenges facing Our Lady of Calvary Catholic School have not stopped.
Our Lady of Calvary is a private, Catholic grade school in the Northeast with about 900 students. Currently, the school is operating with a mix of virtual and in person classes, with safety precautions for both the students and staff.
“When they come in, their temperature is taken,” Jeanne Costello said. “We have stations, it’s a machine that takes their temperature, and they sanitize their hands, then they’re permitted to enter the building.”
Costello, 66, has been the vice principal for the past 22 years, and was a teacher for 11 years before that.
In addition to those safety protocols, masks are required. Each desk is fitted with a transparent shield, and teachers have a movable shield so they can work individually with the children.
Students are now placed in cohorts that do not leave the classroom they are designated in. Instead, teachers change rooms to prevent a large flow of students traveling to a new area. Classrooms are disinfected each day at the end of the day to ensure safety.
However, as safe as the administrators make the school by following guidelines from officials, there is still a risk of positive COVID cases.
Feb. 8 marked the first day of two weeks entirely online for Our Lady of Calvary School after receiving five positive test results. This decision was made by the administration to shut down so government officials did not have to step in.
“When we left here on the fifth we had five cases, three potentials,” Costello explained. “And one of them had lost sense of taste and smell. So we knew that one was coming back. So we made the decision over the weekend, to shut down.”
If officials had to step in, teachers would be unable to even enter the school building to teach remotely from their classroom.
A virtual classroom brings a number of challenges to students at a young age.
“‘I’m trying to get the students at home to be accountable for their work,” teacher Susan Voss said. “It’s very difficult. You give them due dates when things you know, you need to hand it in by this time, and they don’t. You’re constantly chasing it down.”
Vass teaches social studies and math to seventh graders and cites that technology makes teaching math extremely difficult.
“Math is really hard,” Vass said. “Plus in school, I get to walk around, I still walk around. I can look at their book and say, ‘You need to go back, you skipped this step, or you have a computation error.’ You can’t do that with them at home.”
Technology is a big issue for a number of teachers.
“Just technology or trying to figure out how to reach out to the students in the best way to still give them the education because the parents are paying for it,” Sheila Picinich, another seventh grade teacher, said.
Picinich, who has been teaching for 22 years at Our Lady of Calvary, finds that some of the classes she has are more difficult now because of COVID, specifically science lab. With virtual classes comes the added distraction of being at home for class which affects some of the students’ engagement in class.
“I’ve been able, in a sense when they’re in person, not to do more with them, but you have a different rapport with them since they are a smaller group,” Vass said.
When teaching with a mix of online and virtual students, it is harder to keep the students that are virtual engaged which leads to interruptions in class.
“I said, ‘You have to remember this, as much as you’re annoyed by this, don’t contribute to it if we ever have to go virtual again,’” Vass said. “But there’s no control over that. Kids are kids, and they’re going to get away with what they can get away with and we can’t do anything about that.”
Engagement is difficult for anyone at this time, especially for kids who may not be able to see friends and be kids during the pandemic. Our Lady of Calvary usually provides students with activities, but this year it is a little different.
One of the bigger events is Scholar Dollar Day, which is a market for kids at the end of each year to spend points that they earn for being good students.
“We’re really hopeful that we’re going to be able to do it,” Costello said. “Of course we didn’t last year. We’ve talked about, ‘Do we move it outdoors?’ We haven’t had any fundraisers, so financially it’s difficult. But we’re surviving. We, as you remember, have very generous people. Our families are very supportive.”
The transition online has affected the parents of the students as well.
“Well, it’s disruptive,” Jacquelyn Emore said “Absolutely. It’s very disruptive. Right now I am in school, I was laid off from my work.”
Emore is the mother of first grade student, Emily, at Our Lady of Calvary.
“She’s younger,” Emore said. “I don’t know how it would be, if she was in seventh or eighth grade. They probably will be more independent with most things. So she does need a lot more help.”
Emore feels Our Lady of Calvary has handled the safety of the students well and believes proper precautions are in place.
“I feel that they’ve done everything they could do to keep everybody safe,” she said.
When different teachers were asked what they missed most from a normal school day, the answer was generally the same.
“The ability to interact with them more, when you can be right there at their desk,” Vass said. “Now I’m at their desk, but I’m above. I’m looking sometimes over the screen, or behind them trying to look down. I try not to get too close to them, so that’s tough.”
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