There is a fear that the number 13 brings about bad luck, so on Friday the 13th of March, 2020, when the schools of the Erie Catholic School System closed their doors due to the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic, it was easy to be concerned about what the future held. I am very pleased to say that our students, parents, teachers and administrators quickly conquered any fears about that day.
The six schools of the Erie Catholic School System (Blessed Sacrament, Our Lady of Peace, Saint George, Saint James, Saint Jude and Saint Luke) reopened virtually two school days later, on March 18. Fortunately, the system had made a commitment at the start of the 2019-20 school year to provide 1:1 technology for our students. The plan was to connect students and teachers remotely. Who knew that Zooming would become a verb allowing them to bond and continue learning daily?
Students could not connect with their teachers from tiny boxes virtually, rather than desks. Things were unprecedented and yet with ingenuity, effort, and reliance on their faith, they moved forward. The schools continued to begin their days with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. The morning announcements were shared on Facebook pages where parents could log in to “share” and “like” the good news of the morning with their children. In a very fearful world, the schools continued to share their mission of faith education. Our goal remained the same: to aid in student learning and mental well-being. Only the delivery system had changed.
We are tremendously indebted to all involved: our generous parents who did everything they could to help their children navigate virtual learning; our teachers for their heroic efforts in adapting to the new arrangement; and the Catholic Schools Office, staff and administrators who did everything they could to make it all work.
After the unexpected adventure we all experienced in the spring of 2020, the administration, teachers and staff
spent the summer ensuring that they could open their school doors safely and welcome in-person education in the fall. Teachers and staff emptied classrooms and pushed desks to the recommended 6-feet limits and beyond. Instead of students switching classrooms, teachers would travel to the students, allowing students to stay in their safe pods. The water fountains were taped off and replaced with water bottle filling stations. The hallways were decorated with safety signs and one-way foot traffic directions. Morning temperature checks began each day for both students and staff. Hand sanitizing for everyone was a daily routine. The cafeteria seating was reduced and eating in the classroom was possible with every desk having plastic shields as protection. The schools collaborated with their campus parish and provided weekly Mass for students via Zoom. Every effort was made to create a safe environment for the students and staff.
Parents’ faith in the Erie Catholic School System was rewarded in late August 2020. As the doors opened, the masks on students’ faces couldn’t hide the excitement in their eyes. Conversations filled the air as students shared stories about their unusual summer. Principals and teachers learned to read eyes, and while they missed the smiles, they could hear the laughter.
The teachers taught students the fundamentals and standards needed for their specific grade-level and the schools held true to the vision of the Erie Catholic School System; strong moral character, skills for academic success and a zeal for growing in their faith that included providing service to others.
As always, we saw students’ resilience and teachers’ creativity. While service to others in person halted, schools created cards to be distributed in nursing homes. During the winter months, they collected socks and gloves for distribution to many nonprofit organizations. The service to the Erie community was heightened and so, too, was a sense of purpose amid a global pandemic.
We know we are not yet out of the woods. All aspects of our lives have been turned upside down, and new variants on the horizon mean we must remain vigilant. With all I have witnessed since that fateful Friday the 13th, I have no doubt that the Erie Catholic School System will meet the challenges, focusing on our mission to maximize every child’s academic and spiritual potential through engaging learning experiences and the Gospel values of Jesus Christ, in a welcoming and safe environment.
This column originally appeared in the Erie Times-News and is available here.
Bridget Philip is the interim president and vice president of enrollment management for the Erie Catholic School System.