Archdiocesan high schools thrive with ‘heroic’ innovation despite lingering pandemic

October 27, 2020

Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School of Houston held three ‘Cross of Constantine’ ceremonies, a school tradition where the senior class receives the school’s iconic blazer and cross, which are symbols of the seniors’ leadership positions. (Photo courtesy of Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory)

HOUSTON — As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the Catholic high schools at the Archdiocese continue to innovate with new ways to educate teens while maintaining health protocols to protect students and faculty.

Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory has begun their hybrid learning program receiving 25% of their students on campus.

Eileen Quiñones, director of academics and principal at Cristo Rey, said the biggest challenge to get this school year to work was designing a thorough reopening plan aligned with the regulations and also considering the school families’ context.

“Our students live in multi-generational households, with comorbidity factors, and are at a higher risk of contracting the virus,” she said. “Many families have already been impacted by COVID and lost loved ones.”

Quiñones said the school’s teachers “unwavering commitment to the mission is amazing” as they have transformed and adapted their classes, resources and teaching strategies to be effective with the students in a virtual environment.

“Many of our students are thriving in a remote environment, while others are struggling,” she said. “Some of our upperclassmen work to support their families, take care of their younger siblings and still attend their synchronous classes.”

When the pandemic hit in the spring, Cristo Rey turned around very quickly and loaned out equipment to the students that did not have computers at home. Having been able to distribute 1:1 Chromebooks in early August, Quiñones said, reduced the technology divide.

“We are working to keep some of the school traditions in our virtual reality, such as homecoming and the Red Ribbon Week,” she said. “To the best of our ability, we are attempting to keep as much a sense of normalcy as possible.”

Andrea Smith, principal at Incarnate Word Academy, said that despite the adjustments they’ve had to make in their classrooms due to the pandemic, the faculty has been able to adapt and thrive.

“While we started out this academic year with all of our students learning remotely, in mid-September, we opened our campus, allowing up to 50% of our students for in-class instruction on any given day,” she said. “It is wonderful to have our girls back on campus, albeit in a limited capacity. The students and teachers are in sync with our hybrid and remote instructional plans, which are based around blended learning and the flipped classroom.”

Smith said the biggest challenge has been the amount of time it has taken to ensure that the school meets the academic needs of all the students, whether they are taking part in on-campus hybrid learning or off-campus remote learning.

“Our faculty demonstrates heroic efforts every day, creating plans for two sets of learners,” she said. “They’ve shown their dedication and creativity, putting together lessons that are engaging and challenging for our students.”

St. Catherine’s Montessori began the school year with distance learning for the whole class for three weeks, and the teachers and students, including high school, were all comfortable with the online method of learning. As of Oct. 8, all students are back to in-person learning.

“Lunch and most classes are conducted outside,” Susan Tracy, head of school, said. “We also have built in time for outdoor mask breaks. The students appreciate the academic rigor of the program and understand the responsibilities they bear in minimizing exposure to COVID-19. The teachers continue to present learning in a fun and engaging way.”

She said the biggest challenge for the newest high school in the Archdiocese has been providing the students with the level of independence that high school-age students would normally enjoy.

“In a normal year, we would be traveling, doing community service outside the school and sending our young adults out into the community to seek authentic work alongside professional mentors,” Tracy said. “However, those opportunities are limited this year by our need to limit exposure outside the classroom.”

Daniel Pepe, director of communications at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory, said the campus went back to full on-campus attendance on Oct. 19 after a brief stint in hybrid.

“We are taking it day by day, like everyone else, primarily focused on making sure our campus is a safe place to be for our students, and reimagining all of our annual events in a way that is appropriate for the current landscape,” he said. “Spirits are high and we are certain that Jesuit education, which has survived for over 400 years, will also find its way successfully though this pandemic.”