By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a lot of changes in people's lives, from the youngest to the oldest. Kevin Baxter, Chief Innovation Officer for the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in the United States, spoke with Vatican News about some of those changes regarding students and teachers in the nation's Catholic schools.
From proximate to remote
Kevin Baxter noted that the most “evident change” in education across the United States is the shift from providing education in classrooms to providing it remotely. School teachers, principals, students and parents alike have had “to adjust to remote instruction”.
The most inspiring for Kevin as a Catholic has been “to see how Catholic schools have responded. It’s been with enthusiasm. It's been with joy. It's been with creativity and resilience and innovation.”
He is not the only one who is positive about the shift. Kevin has spoken with more than half of the approximately 180 Catholic School superintendents in the U.S. The stories, he said, “are just incredible about how positive the move has gone from their perspective, from a logistical perspective.”
This shift is not the only change the Catholic educational community has had to adapt to. The second change regards the close connection between the Catholic Faith and the Catholic School: not being able to participate in Mass in the parish. “Not having the Eucharist, I think, has been a big challenge for the Catholic faithful in the U.S. The other practical implication of that for Catholic schools is that obviously churches that aren't able to then have any offertory collection, or have a diminished offertory recollection, can’t support the schools to degree they supported schools in the past”.
This fact, Kevin said, proposes “long-term concerns”.
Learning curve happened almost overnight
Doors to the schools were literally shuttered in many places overnight, Kevin said. “I can’t tell you the number of stories we heard where teachers really weren't sure what was happening and what the extent of this was going to be. And they said goodbye to their kids on a Thursday and then found out over the weekend they weren’t going back, and [they] had to adjust to a remote instruction by the next Monday. Schools were just doing it on the fly and doing it very, very capably”.
Given the economic condition of both schools and students’ families, some have been able to adapt to a completely digital platform. Others have had to be even more creative due to the fact that some students in lower income areas “wouldn't necessarily have that seamless [internet] connection at home, or it’s not stable or high-quality". Schools sometimes “don't have the technology infrastructure present at the school to really deliver”.
In these cases, Kevin told about “parents having to come by the school and dropping off assignments and picking up assignments and using baskets for different grade levels, and it's really kind of fascinating how people have gotten creative about how to do that.”
Face to face is ideal
Although education can be done remotely, Kevin emphasized that “Catholic schools are really about community. It’s about being in relationship with Jesus, relationship with one another, relationship with their teachers. That sense of community is so vital to the success and to the successful outcomes that we see in Catholic schools”.
Building community does not only involve the students, but parents as well. How to build community online is “not exactly the same” as being in person, Kevin says. However, Catholic schools have begun to use “Zoom technology and other technologies to bring people together, yes for instruction, but also just for prayer experiences, for community gatherings and parent meetings”.
Innovation amidst devastation
Kevin admits that the innovation taking place in the Catholic school setting is side by side with the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. He has found inspiration in what one Catholic superintendent shared with him: “What I'm choosing to do is not to think about what we're losing potentially through this process, and what our loss is, but rather: what’s trying to be born, and how on the other side of it can we be better through the experiences that we're going through?”
In the end, it is all about learning, even in this devastation period, Kevin admitted.
“There’s things we are learning through this process that I don’t want to lose sight of. I'm really trying to think about how we can take those learnings and really make our schools even stronger after we get through the challenge of this current [pandemic]", he said.
About the NCEA
The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) is the largest association of private school teachers in the world. It prides itself on providing support and development to Catholic educators who combine their professional skills with the teaching mission of the Catholic Church. NCEA was founded in St Louis, MO in 1904. As a national association, it provides a voice to the public at large for Catholic education. Currently, the NCEA focuses on leadership training for school administrators at all levels: superintendents, presidents, principals, and boards.