Coronavirus prompts diocesan schools’ shift to at-home learning

Emily Booker News, Schools

Technology learned in the classroom will be helpful during this time learning at home.

The halls are quiet, and classrooms are empty, but Catholic schools in the Diocese of Knoxville are back in session—just in a new, safe way. In response to the coronavirus pandemic and need for social distancing, all ten Diocese of Knoxville Catholic Schools have moved to at-home learning for all students.

Due to staggered spring break schedules, at-home learning began for Chattanooga area Catholic schools on March 18. Catholic schools in the Knoxville area and Johnson City began on March 23. St. Dominic School in Kingsport will begin on Monday, March 30.

It has taken a lot of grace and patience from teachers, students, and parents as instruction has shifted from the classroom to homes. Teachers have quickly worked adapting curriculums and learning the ins and outs of technology that will help them stay in touch and instruct their students.

“The teachers and staff have been great,” said Dr. Sedonna Prater, superintendent of Diocese of Knoxville Catholic Schools. “Some of what we’re doing is second-nature for our students. They’ve grown up surrounded by technology. Our school leaders and teachers, some of whom didn’t necessarily grow up around technology, have adapted quickly and have displayed a tremendous amount of dedication to what we are doing.”

Using technology in the classroom has helped students prepare for the challenges of at-home learning.

“Our students are accustomed to using Chromebooks at school and using all the Google Apps for Education,” Andy Zengel, principal of St. Joseph School in Knoxville, said.  “They’ve been learning to use Google Classroom for instruction, assignments, and assessments during this transition.”

Dickie Sompayrac, president of Knoxville Catholic High School, said that KCHS’ technology team was prepared for challenge.

“We are well-positioned to meet the learning needs of all of our 645 students using the latest educational technology. We are always reviewing best practices, and we couldn’t be more excited about the dedication of our staff embracing new teaching methods,” he said.

“While at-home learning is not the same as physical in-class interaction, I am confident our students will thrive, grow, and go beyond expectations.”

George Valadie, president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga, said that, like everything these days, the need to shift to at-home learning hit suddenly, but the teachers rallied to make the transition as smooth and beneficial for the students as possible.

“We don’t remote learn as a matter of daily routine,” he said. “Among Notre Dame’s many beauties is the long list of dedicated teachers who do whatever they can to make a difference—arriving early, staying late, rehearsing, practicing, tutoring – all done face-to-face—help offered sometimes with a hug, sometimes with a stern face, sometimes with a shared tear. Robbed of the tools they know best, they’ve accepted the challenge and dug in headlong.” 

All sports, extracurriculars, and school events during this time have been canceled.

For high school seniors, it can be particularly taxing, wondering if they are going to miss out on the many seminal moments of senior year.

“As the typical school year winds down, seniors come face-to-face with that sense of this will be the ‘last time’ we’ll do this or that as a class. They’re struggling with the idea they may have already done it, but it slipped by unnoticed and unappreciated,” Mr. Valadie said

Mr. Zengel said he had been sending messages of encouragement to his eighth students, who might also be worried about missing class trips, Living Stations of the Cross, May Crowning, and graduation.

“While that is a real hardship for them, it’s important to keep perspective on the suffering that exists in our world all the time. We’ve been reminding them of the contributions of people who were stuck inside during troubled times – Shakespeare wrote Macbeth and King Lear, and Newton invented calculus during the plague. Anne Frank gave us her masterpiece diary while hiding from Nazis, and St. Paul converted thousands while on house arrest in Rome for two years.  While this is a new and sometimes difficult way to go to school, it is still an opportunity to learn of which we must all take advantage,” he said.

As of now, at-home learning will continue on regularly scheduled school days through Monday, April 13. [Edit 4/1: At-home learning extended to May 4.] The decision to return to schools will be reevaluated in consultation with state and local health officials.

Jake Rodgers, principal of Sacred Heart Cathedral School, noted that this will be a memorable time for the students.

“I hope that this experience will build confidence and resilience in our students,” he said. “Each generation has trials that it must endure. This trial will teach our kids that by pulling together we can weather uncertain times. This may be something that their grandkids ask them about one day, and I think we will have prepared our students well if they can look back on this and draw confidence.”

“It is very important that we do everything we can to continue our mission as Catholic educators, even at this time,” Dr. Prater said. With collaboration between teachers and parents, our school children can continue to learn and grow during this unprecedented time.

“Parents really are the first educators of their children, and we have always taken the approach that we are here to serve and support them in the education of their children. We feel this is our obligation.”

For more information, read the Diocese of Knoxville Catholic Schools’ Office “At-Home Learning FAQs.”