Catholic high school students in Archdiocese adjust to new COVID-19 ‘normal’

April 28, 2020

Students and faculty at St. Pius X High School in Houston honored the Class of 2020 in a drive-by event near Kubiak Stadium's Parsley Field which was lit up for SPX's senior class. Families were invited to light up their porches or drive through the stadium parking lot while faculty, staff and coaches cheered and honked their horns in celebration. The sign on the field said: "Hope for Houston #SPXStrong." (Photo courtesy of St. Pius X High School)

HOUSTON — Among the drastic changes brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of students across the country shifted from in-person lessons to distance learning.
For Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese, this meant changing their curriculum and methods entirely so students could learn from home.

For graduating seniors, school closings means no prom, no walking the graduation stage together, no throwing of graduation caps celebrating with each other — all of it gone.
For St. Catherine Montessori, that meant their first graduating class would not be traditional.

“The high school students at St. Catherine’s Montessori transitioned to our Learning from Home program without any difficulty,” Susan Tracy, head of school at St. Catherine’s Montessori, said.

Even with virtual connections, she said the most difficult part of the transition was the loss of social interaction because lessons in a Montessori environment are very interactive, enabling exchanging of ideas in person.

Tracy said the students have made films to share with the community, a day in the life of a high school student learning from home, how to make banana bread and a variety of students reading different books that younger children can tune into when they would like to hear a story read.

She said the graduating students played a role in meetings to coordinate what should be included in our first graduation ceremony. With school canceled for the rest of the session, they will re-convene to see how to move forward.

“It is important that the celebration has meaning for them and valorizes the incredible work they have accomplished as human beings,” she said. “We could not be more proud of the students we are sending out into the world and know without a doubt that they will make positive contributions to society.”

Sophia Devereux, senior at St. Catherine’s Montessori, said she had no doubt that “St. Catherine’s community will find a way to celebrate this exciting first step in our school’s history some way or another, whether it be virtually and/or later in the year.”

She said everyone at the school is taking the current situation in stride.

“We are learning to appreciate all that we took for granted, like being able to hug our friends, engage with our teachers face to face, and learn in the comfort and familiarity of our classroom,” she said.

Ruth Scherschel, also a senior at St. Catherine’s Montessori, said that while many seniors are missing out on beloved school traditions that they have been waiting to be a part of for years, she feels lucky to be a part of the first graduating class.

“We don’t have any senior traditions yet, and while I would have loved to have made some, we aren’t really missing out on that front,” she said.

Other Catholic high schools have made adjustments for students to continue their studies at home. Officials at Incarnate Word Academy said the school has adopted an asynchronous approach to learning, providing each student an opportunity to practice managing time and coursework at her own pace, similar to online learning in college.
The teachers post online lectures, host live tutorials via Zoom to answer questions, and research new technologies to enhance their remote teaching.

St. Pius X High School (SPX) has also moved to a distance learning approach. Head of School Carmen Garrett Armistead said they never imagined a situation in which teachers would be required to teach from home and students would be required to learn from home for more than 2 months.

“Our teachers and students have shown that they are ‘SPX strong’ — willing to do whatever is needed to continue forming leaders and scholars in the St. Pius X High School tradition,” she said. “We all miss seeing and hearing the sights and sounds of being surrounded by students each day, but we are a people of hope and we know that we will learn from this experience, and perhaps even appreciate one another and this thing we call school a little more.”

Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart not only continued their education remotely, but also their community service program. Upper School students wrote letters of support and encouragement to healthcare workers, and families have also been encouraged to pack lunches for Kids Meals from home.

“Our students have academically acclimated very easily with the plans implemented by our skilled faculty using our longstanding 1:1 laptop program,” said Patricia Swenson, head of school at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart. “The most difficulty they are experiencing is their lack of daily social interactions with their friends on campus.”

Patti Abbott, principal at O’Connell College Preparatory School in Galveston, said they have been pleased with the student’s progress and the transition to online instruction.
In addition to Chalk, a program the parents and students are familiar with, Abbott added, “We use Zoom, remind app, email, text and IRIS alerts for communication with parents and kids. I have been meeting with the faculty weekly to make sure we are communicating and intervening if there are red flags or positive notes.”

At St. John XXIII, to keep students engaged in learning, teachers are using creative tools, such as recorded lessons, music, ice breakers and visual presentations.

“With little time to prepare for remote instruction, our students have not only risen to the challenge, but excelled,” Principal Joseph Noonan said. “I am very proud of the way they have handled the situation, especially our seniors who have not wavered during their last few weeks of high school.”

The staff at St. Agnes Academy remained focused on student education, but also on their mental wellness. The St. Agnes wellness department set up a COVID-19 information website that linked to information on managing anxiety during the pandemic. They also created an Instagram account for students to post positive and encouraging images, as well as self-care and stress-management tips.

At St. Thomas High School, their integration of optimal technology as an element of the modern classroom made the sudden conversation to distance learning less disruptive than expected.

“Our challenge is balancing the desire to give students an academic experience that is as similar as possible to what they would receive on campus while understanding the impact that the coronavirus is having on other aspects of their lives,” Principal Dr. Aaron Dominguez said. “Our goal for excellence is always with flexibility and compassion as our students are trying to juggle so many things they have going on in their lives right now.”

Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory President Paul Beck shared a similar sentiment.

“We were fortunate to have both the access to technology so all of our students can access online learning with no days lost and we have been using online classroom software with all the students since they entered Cristo Rey Jesuit as freshmen,” he said.

Cristo Rey students who are part of the Corporate Work-Study program are either working remotely on projects for their supervisors, or completing online modules to sharpen their professional development skills in preparation of their return to work.

For Strake Jesuit College Preparatory, having the technology already in place made the transition seamless.

“Even our fine arts that are traditionally more hands-on are doing virtual tours of major art museums across the world and talking about their collections and impact,” the administrative team said.

Sister John Paul, O.P., principal at Frassati Catholic High School in Spring, said she was impressed by the way both students and faculty quickly pivoted and returned to school after Spring Break to a remote learning situation.

“I am impressed ... by the way so many of our students have expressed their concern for our seniors,” she said. “It’s beyond disappointing to not be able to celebrate with them appropriately.”

Frassati senior Micaela Richmond said she and fellow students looked forward to the senior privilege and fun moments happening at the end of the year, but with Governor Greg Abbott’s announcement that Texas schools will be closed through the end of the semester, it means all of it, including graduation, will not be happening.

“It’s upsetting because I feel deprived, missing out on of one of the most memorable moments of my life,” she said. “Nevertheless, when I compare my situation to others, it seems kind of small. I am letting go of what I would like my senior year to be, and am accepting it for what it is. I give it up to God, and rest assured that I know that I will never forget this year.”