The Virtual Lessons Catholic Schools Can Teach

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This op-ed originally appeared in The Boston Pilot.

By Tom Birmingham

In a time when COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges, Catholic schools like St. Joseph Preparatory High School in Brighton and Boston College High School have risen to the occasion and delivered consistent, high-quality education during the pandemic. Sadly, that hasn’t been true everywhere. With the resumption of traditional classes this fall appearing less likely every day, schools across Massachusetts should draw lessons from successes like St. Joseph Prep and B.C. High.

I’m proud to include my own alma mater on the list of Catholic schools that have stepped up during this time. Recently, Reading’s Austin Prep used the resumption of religious services as part of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan to provide the class of 2020 with an in-person graduation ceremony. The school celebrated both Mass and graduation at an event at which strict social distancing was enforced, masks worn, and surfaces were carefully sanitized.

After two parents tested positive for coronavirus in March, B.C. High closed, beginning on a Wednesday, to do a deep cleaning of the school. During the closure, Mayor Walsh shut down all schools in Boston. The following Monday, B.C. High was up and running with “B.C. High Connects,” remotely providing its students with connected learning.

Compare that to the experience in Worcester, the Commonwealth’s second largest school district. There, many students were unable to take part in online learning and had no direct contact with teachers for two months after the pandemic hit in March, due to lack of computers. The district didn’t begin distributing laptops to students who needed them until May. Now it is assessing the educational damage.

In two Pioneer Institute policy briefs this spring, digital learning icon Julie Young, CEO of ASU Prep Digital High School at Arizona State University who was previously the founding president and CEO of the Florida Virtual School, laid out five important steps for successful virtual education:

  1. Understand the level of devices and internet access families have
  2. Equip schools for virtual instruction
  3. Prepare teachers
  4. Serve most special needs students
  5. Establish daily schedules

St. Joseph Prep had a remote learning plan in place well before the school closings that included a schedule for class meetings via Zoom, assignments, advising, absence procedures and ways to hold students accountable. Additionally, the school engaged students by continuing to offer extracurricular activities remotely, such as clubs, a spring virtual theatre production, and a virtual science, technology, engineering, arts, and math showcase. Through careful planning and a focus on engagement, St. Joseph Prep saw well over 90 percent daily remote attendance throughout the spring.

B.C. High began working on a plan as soon as a Umass-Boston student tested positive for the virus in February. Drawing in part from St. Joseph Prep, it consisted of morning class meetings, followed by virtual teacher office hours in the afternoon. Critically, it also addressed provisions and accommodations for families without devices and/or internet access.

The school also has a robust professional development program for its faculty, which involved preparations for remote learning, such as teaching on Zoom.

Serving special needs students requires highly specialized approaches, but Julie Young’s experience has been that all but the most severe can have their needs met remotely.

Austin Prep’s Latin motto is “Tolle Lege” — “Take Up and Read!” Although reading and learning have looked different during COVID-19 than at any other time, I’m gratified that my alma mater and other Catholic schools have been equal to the moment and have continued educating students during these trying times.

With the fall semester looking so uncertain, the challenge is for public and private schools from across Massachusetts to learn from these successful Catholic schools and the steps laid out by online education experts as a roadmap to provide all their students with the education they deserve.

Tom Birmingham is a former Massachusetts State Senate President and a Distinguished Senior Fellow in Education at Pioneer Institute.