At Saint Paul Catholic School in Valparaiso, it’s more like a family and when the pandemic caused school buildings to close mid-March, the community worked hard to smoothly adapt to online learning while ensuring that students would continue to receive a quality education and stay connected with each other.
“Even in the midst of these hard times, our students know that they are part of our school family and that we’re going to be responsive and they can count on that. It’s just such a unique, connected community,” said Gina Wagenblast, Principal at Saint Paul Catholic School.
“Our school really has that family atmosphere that I think connects us all so well during this time. Our parents know we’re all working together and trying to do what’s best,” said Donna Shane, Kindergarten Teacher at Saint Paul Catholic School.
Whether it is connecting with their students via FaceTime or Zoom, making themselves available for student questions via text or phone call, or taking time out of their schedule to learn a new skill to enhance online learning, the teachers at Saint Paul are doing all they can to keep students learning.
“I’m at a loss of words at the level of professionalism and the willingness to constantly learn and better themselves because that’s what’s best for the students. It’s a sense of dedication, loyalty, and commitment to their students. They’re an amazing group of dedicated educators,” Wagenblast said.
And for some teachers at Saint Paul, online learning has helped them learn more about their students and build even closer relationships.
“We’re getting a kind of connection with them that we don’t get at school. We’re getting a picture into their home lives, and they’re sharing more with us now than they were in the classroom setting and that’s really neat,” said Stephanie Coggins, Middle School English/Language/Arts Teacher. “I think that’s what I love about using technology during this time, I’m getting to see pieces of the students that I wouldn’t typically get to see in the classroom. It’s really powerful when you think about how much technology can offer during a time of crisis like this where you can still connect with others.”
Beyond learning, the teachers and staff are getting creative in letting the students know they’re still here for them and they miss them.
“Even though I can’t see them every day and give them a hug or a high five, all of these little touches are still letting them know that I am in their life, I worry about them, I love them, and I want to make sure that they are learning and being the best they can,” Shane said.
“One of the most powerful tools you can have as an educator is that connection with your students. Getting to know who they are as people, and as students, helps them respect you more and helps them do a better job with their own education because they know someone cares about them. Getting to see their faces every day and giving them the opportunity to interact with one another is so powerful in making sure we’re keeping that connection and that sense of family that we have at Saint Paul,” Coggins said.
One of the unique ways the school is staying connected is through online Mass every Friday. During the school year, every Friday’s Mass was an opportunity for the entire school to come together. Wanting to maintain that connection, Father Douglas Mayer, Pastor, and Father Jeff Burton, Assistant Pastor at Saint Paul Catholic Church, decided to continue the tradition and host online Mass for the students. Each week, they ask three students to either record themselves reading a scripture, Psalm, or prayer. They then take those recordings and add in a child-friendly sermon and hymns and make the mass available to the entire Saint Paul community.
“This gives Father Jeff and me and the opportunity to connect with the students. It’s also an opportunity for our young students to connect in a way they are used to. It’s a spiritual connection, it’s that personal connection, and it’s some face time. These are all things that we used to do face-to-face and are now doing virtually through technology,” Mayer said.
Saint Paul Catholic School was able to quickly adapt to online learning as they had already laid a solid foundation. For three years, the school has been using eLearning for snow/emergency days. They even conduct parent workshops at the beginning of each year to explain how to log on and get the information needed. This year, each middle school student received their own personal Chromebook and had been using the Chromebooks and Google Classroom throughout the year. This all helped create a smooth transition.
“Even though students were familiar with the technology and using the online classroom when we got the call that we had to leave school so suddenly, we were grateful that the students had some prior experience with the technology. I think that it helps them know how to do assignments and how to communicate,” Coggins said.
Despite the challenging times, Saint Paul Catholic School has shown students and families that they are here for them and want them to succeed.
“We all know that we’re in this together, but I feel like we’re exemplifying it beyond any words I could have possibly imagined,” Wagenblast said. “Every little act that we do can help them feel valued and that’s why it’s important to continue doing what we can.”
For more information on Saint Paul Catholic School, visit their website https://www.stpaulvalpo.org/.