Tyson Vicors, a kindergartner at St. John the Apostle School in Oregon City, works on a science lesson about baby animals from his family’s kitchen. As schools in the Portland Archdiocese moved to remote digital instruction, teachers have shown “phenomenal flexibility and a focus on doing the right things for kids,” said Kelli Clark, principal of St. Ignatius School in Southeast Portland. “And they’re trying to rapidly bring up their skills in completely new and dynamic environments.” (Courtesy St. John the Apostle School)
Tyson Vicors, a kindergartner at St. John the Apostle School in Oregon City, works on a science lesson about baby animals from his family’s kitchen. As schools in the Portland Archdiocese moved to remote digital instruction, teachers have shown “phenomenal flexibility and a focus on doing the right things for kids,” said Kelli Clark, principal of St. Ignatius School in Southeast Portland. “And they’re trying to rapidly bring up their skills in completely new and dynamic environments.” (Courtesy St. John the Apostle School)
“Distancing, Joey, distancing!” Jennifer Corpus called out to her sixth grade son, who was dribbling a basketball outside during a break from online studies. A buddy from school had walked by and Joey momentarily had crossed the mandated 6-foot buffer intended to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

It was a snapshot of what’s become a peculiar new lifestyle for families across the Archdiocese of Portland and the nation — children and parents navigating days at home together plus social distancing policies that are life-saving and at times exasperating. Especially if you’re a kid.

Members of Catholic school communities in western Oregon, including the Corpus family from St. Ignatius in Southeast Portland, have rolled up their sleeves, plugged in their devices and lifted up prayers to try to make it work.

There have been glitches and frustrations. But Portland Catholic Tom Faulhaber, father of three, expressed an assessment shared by many: “We are hanging in there.”

Technology and heroic teachers

Prior to the pandemic, infrastructures for remote instruction already were in place — with varying degrees of sophistication — at high schools and elementary schools in the archdiocese. This allowed web-based learning to commence almost immediately after the coronavirus-driven shutdown of the schools began in mid-March.

Each grade level has a number of required minutes per subject area, and students have been working toward specific standards. Instructors are answering questions, exchanging emails and crafting lessons.

Jeannie Ray-Timoney, Portland archdiocesan schools superintendent, said her department started focusing on digital learning a few years ago during the record-breaking Portland snowstorms that closed schools.

Even before Snowpocalypse, many of the Catholic high schools were on the vanguard of digital learning; the 2016-17 snowstorms forced them to embrace it fully and sort out kinks, according to Kelli Clark, the current principal of St. Ignatius School and past principal of St. Mary’s Academy in Southwest Portland.

Meanwhile, elementary schools “have been all over the map” when it comes to digital instruction capabilities, Clark said. Now they’re going through what the high schools encountered during the snow — a brutal learning curve.

“Teachers are trying things at a rate that wouldn’t have been a priority in the past,” said Clark. “It’s a lot of stress and pressure and not necessarily the best way to go, but it does force a shift.”

She believes this shift will have long-term benefits. “You don’t go backward with technology; you can’t think backward,” she said. “Digital learning is more seamless, it gains the advantages of time, it can be individualized, and there’s the positive environmental impact of being paperless.”

Ray-Timoney and her team intend to offer as much support as possible for remote instruction. The superintendent said schools also are communicating with each other, swapping best practices and staying in regular contact with staff through virtual faculty meetings.

Throughout the transition, “the teachers have been heroic,” said Clark, echoing the sentiments of administrators and parents. “They’ve shown phenomenal flexibility and a focus on doing the right things for kids. And they’re trying to rapidly bring up their skills in completely new and dynamic environments.”

Flexibility, deep breaths

Like many Oregonians, the Josts hunkered down at home in March to establish new routines. Kristin Jost is remotely teaching St. Ignatius third graders, and her husband recently began teleworking for his Fred Meyer job. They have a second grader and fourth grader tackling distance learning.

With the whole crew under one roof, bandwidth has been a problem. “We’re not lacking in devices; we are lacking in Wi-Fi,” said Jost with a laugh.

The first week was especially challenging. Though confident using online platforms in the classroom, “without the kids in front of me it felt overwhelming at first,” said Jost.

“I posted an assignment and immediately everyone started asking questions. I felt like every kid was yelling a question out loud, and I couldn’t say, as I could in a classroom, ‘Hey, let’s take a little time to think about it, and I’m going to get to you as soon as I can.’”

She missed the conversations that emerge organically with students in person. At the same time she was peppered with her own children’s queries: Why had a device stopped working? Could she help with this assignment?

“It felt really heavy on me as a parent and working,” said Jost.

After an especially draining day, she received a message from a parent, telling her she was doing great and that the woman’s son was learning and feeling cared for.

“I thought, ‘OK, deep breaths; everyone is going to get through it,’” recalled Jost, adding that the subsequent days have gotten easier.

Many parents like Jost are feeling the burden of aiding their children’s education while sustaining a hefty assortment of other stressors.

“The idea of managing a child’s day in an optimal fashion, especially if working full time — no way is that possible,” said Corpus, a mother of two and psychology professor at Reed College in Portland.

Ray-Timoney understands families face a range of difficulties. Many are enduring financial struggles; others have lost jobs or businesses.

“The schools are trying to remain connected with the families” while providing flexibility, she said.

“One of my biggest hopes is that we get through this intact,” said Clark. “I worry that people will have pressures, financial fears, that will lead them to opt out of our community. I want our community to do our very best to bring everyone through this together, to solve the challenges as they come.”

Maintaining normalcy

During the first days of remote instruction, Faulhaber, the dad of three, noticed his St. Ignatius kindergartener was out of sorts. “Not in any major way but a noticeable difference from his happy-go-lucky self,” said Faulhaber. “It’s understandable. His world got turned upside down. Mine, too, but I’m 41 and he’s 6 and a half.”

Other parents echo his observation, witnessing their children grapple with a lack of peers, in-person teachers and routine.

Zoom and other video communication platforms used by schools have helped preserve a level of connection between teachers and students and among classmates.

“It’s an important way to help maintain community — a connectedness to a support system for children to retain a sense of normalcy,” said Deborah Dewar, principal of St. Joseph in Salem.

Corpus said if families can uphold a routine throughout the day, it gives kids a feeling of stability and control.

“Though it seems appealing to sleep in later and forget about that dishwasher chore, it’s helpful to keep up a routine at home, while of course allowing for flexibility,” said Corpus.

The school closures have forced students — notably seniors — to accept a slew of disappointments.

“Going through K-12 you look forward to senior year and all these fun activities with friends,” said Talia Felcher, a senior at La Salle Prep in Milwaukie. A school camping trip was canceled, and senior prom and the graduation bash likely will be scratched. Trips to visit colleges — also canceled. “It’s kind of just one thing after the other,” Felcher said.

But she’s been reflecting on how fortunate she is to continue her education. Some of her public school friends have not had the same opportunity; the Oregon Department of Education does not have the capacity to transfer all schools online.

“Though remote instruction is sometimes stressful, it’s also a comforting routine and a great way to continue learning,” said Felcher.

‘A source of strength’

Teachers said plenty of remote learning time is unplugged, including exercise, service and faith practices.

For a St. Patrick’s Day project, students at St. John the Apostle in Oregon City drew shamrocks, with a person of the Trinity written on each leaf.

When the coronavirus forced Jost’s third graders to halt Meals on Wheels deliveries to the homebound elderly, the teacher came up with an alternative: write cards for the residents.

“It was a way to reach the population in a different way, to let them know we still care,” she said.

Jost feels it’s critical to incorporate outdoor movement into home-based instruction. “In school, kids are moving all the time — from classroom to library, library to gym and then to recess,” she said. Those transitions give growing brains a chance to reset, so families need to build them into their days.

Clark said even remotely teachers are faith leaders for their students. “They’re helping kids remember that their Catholic faith is a source of strength during times of trouble,” she said.

Corpus has helped her children connect their experiences to Lent.

“It’s an opportunity to talk about the sacrifices people are going through — that we are doing all these things like social distancing to try to protect the most vulnerable,” Corpus said. “It’s a chance to think about selflessness, even if it’s inconvenient, even if it’s hard.”

katies@catholicsentinel.org