Mickey Conlon

Schools find new ways to gather

By  Richard Olson
  • April 30, 2020

Our schools have been closed for several weeks due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. As we celebrate Catholic Education Week, midway through the Easter season, we are challenged to ignite and inspire hope for our anxious children in our panicked world. 

In a time of shuttered schools and churches, how do we share the excitement and joy of the risen Christ who ignites our Catholic/Christian hope for the abundant life promised, when physical distancing keeps friends isolated from friends, and teachers apart from their students? How do we ensure our students continue to learn?

Remember that a very short time ago the issue of mandatory e-learning for every secondary student in the province was a contentious one. In the end, parents won the right to opt out of e-learning for their children, as it was generally agreed upon that virtual learning may not fit every learning profile. Now, every student in the province is being asked to learn remotely. 

What about the many learners who prefer hands-on learning? What about the many learners with special needs for whom distance learning is an impediment? They require additional supports.

The good news is that our Catholic schools are well-funded; we have many resources and our teachers are tech-savvy, innovative and dedicated to the care of their students. What we have accomplished in just a few weeks in transitioning from classrooms to virtual learning spaces is extraordinary. I have read many e-mails from parents who express deep appreciation for the effort, care and dedication shown to children by their teachers.   

I witnessed this firsthand as we distributed Chromebooks and other devices to families who needed them. The warm regard between the teachers and the students who came to pick up devices was palpable.

Education is essentially relational. The first curriculum is always the relationship between the teacher and the student because learning new things involves the disequilibrium of moving from unknowing to knowing. Trust is essential, and in this present reality, our greatest asset is love.    

Compassion and empathy are required. Not unlike the time before this one, the wellbeing and dignity of students is not only a moral imperative but a pre-condition for learning. 

We want the learning to continue but we must be vigilant about the lived reality of each student, about what their needs are, about the barriers, fears and anxieties they may be experiencing in a time that is for them, and us, unprecedented.

In a time of desolation, we endeavour to offer the consolation of our Catholic/Christian faith that proclaims Christ risen and all of creation made new. That is why our first response was to have teachers making connections with students by any means possible: e-mail, phone call, a digital learning platform and, in some cases, by post. The questions sounded like this: How are you? What do you need? How can I help? 

Additionally, to support the spiritual care of our staff, students and their families in our district, we launched a Pray@Home landing page to accompany our Learn@Home resource, both accessible through our board website.

Thanks to the Ontario bishops’ approved digital resource, “Growing in Faith, Growing in Christ,” our teachers are able to support ongoing religious education that is aligned with the liturgical year and accessible from home.

In truth, keeping apart runs contrary to our incarnational faith. The first movement of the celebration of the Eucharist, the great prayer of the Church, is the gathering of the community. The same is true in our Catholic schools. 

In this Easter season, we are finding new ways to gather, to console each other, to encourage each other, to ignite hope in the promise of Christ risen and creation made new.

(Olson is Superintendent of Learning, Waterloo Catholic District School Board.)

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