This drawing by Katie Jost, who recently finished her second grade year at St. Ignatius School in Southeast Portland, was part of a book she created for class about distance learning. It depicts some of the perks (walks with dad) and frustrations (no park) of pandemic life. (Courtesy Kristin Jost)
This drawing by Katie Jost, who recently finished her second grade year at St. Ignatius School in Southeast Portland, was part of a book she created for class about distance learning. It depicts some of the perks (walks with dad) and frustrations (no park) of pandemic life. (Courtesy Kristin Jost)
Jeanette Herro, a math teacher at Marist High School in Eugene, remembers when she hit the 40-day remote-instruction mark.

“It certainly felt biblical,” said Herro. As in the Bible narratives, it was a period of transformation. She’d reworked assessment methods, become more tech savvy and gained additional empathy for students.

Pre-pandemic, most high schoolers in the Portland Archdiocese were familiar with some digital instruction, but “it looks very different for students when it’s day in and day out,” Herro said. “There’s the little brother who crawls in your lap, the dog who wants to be let out and internet that cuts out. Some students struggled mightily.”

In the final days of the strange academic year, members of the Catholic school community in the archdiocese described the perseverance of students, technology-related angst, the joys and aggravations of forced family time, and the heroic feats of educators and moms and dads.

Jeannie Ray-Timoney, Portland archdiocesan schools superintendent, believes this western Oregon community is especially dedicated to collaboration and innovation and attuned to people’s unique struggles.

“There’s a collective power that is very hopeful and that will help us ride through the bumps,” she said.

A juggling act for parents

Kacy Keippela, whose two boys attend Holy Cross School in North Portland, has a demanding full-time job with Adidas. When both her job and the schooling moved to the homefront, “I was definitely a little terrified,” Keippela said.

But the uber-organized mother quickly put together a comprehensive daily schedule that everyone in the family could access.

“So if I was on a call, the boys could go to the schedule and see what they should be doing next,” she said.

To further mitigate stress, every day at 9:30 a.m. the family laced up their Adidas sneakers and ran around the block twice, rain or shine.

In Southeast Portland, Kristin Jost juggled teaching St. Ignatius third graders and assisting her own two daughters with their work. She learned not to sweat the details.

“You have to think of the big picture, and that picture looks different for everyone,” she said.

While navigating an often-hectic living situation at home, many Catholic school families looked outward to those disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Keippela is president of the Holy Cross parents association. “We tried to work quickly to refocus our efforts to support parents struggling from job loss and other financial strains,” she said.

She recently went through her boys’ closets to see what uniforms had grown too snug. “I hope to get them into the hands of those who will have trouble affording them come fall,” Keippela said.

‘Calm and confidence’ among leadership

Andrew Oldham, assistant principal of academic affairs at Marist, said he and his staff established academic-related goals for digital learning. “But the first priority for us was to be a source of calm and confidence in a time of crisis,” he said, expressing the desire of administrators across the archdiocese.

“We knew we were going to be one of the institutions that students were going to be connected to throughout the whole process,” said Oldham. “So we told teachers, before everything else, you should be guided by that first priority.”

For the Department of Catholic Schools, digital learning prompted innovative ways to support educators.

Amy Jefferis, an associate superintendent, launched biweekly video meetings with teachers, organized by grade and content area, to give teachers the opportunity to ask questions and share ideas.

“In the beginning it was emergency triage, a chance to find comfort in one another and problem solve quickly,” Jefferis said. Over time it evolved.

“Teachers were sharing ideas and assessments and comprehensive solutions,” said Jefferis. “It was exciting. They are so supportive of one another.”

Jefferis has been impressed by the teachers’ dedication. They were “working twice as long and as hard as they’ve ever worked,” she said. “And that’s while they’ve felt the loss of that energy they derive from their students every day.”

For the love of students

Herro felt the loss of in-person interactions acutely.

“I teach high school because I love spending my day with high school students,” she said. “Their vitality is their gift to me.

“Yes, the sophomore boys always seem to smell, but heck, I teach them math and they keep me fresh and full of life,” said Herro. “I love how thorny teenagers are. I love how goofy they are. At the end of the day, they are fabulous. And I cannot get that connection from the situation we’ve been in. It just doesn’t do it for me.”

Teachers said it also was tough to determine how students were faring emotionally.

“When they walk into a classroom, those hints are there that some stuff is going on with them,” said Herro. In the digital realm, those clues are harder to spot.

Though teens are social media whizzes, “they are not skilled in meaningful digital communication,” she said.

Suzanne Devaney-Wilkes is a second grade teacher at Holy Cross. She said educators in the older grades had some familiarity with digital instruction, but for her, “it was a shocker to move completely to digital platforms. That first week was baptism by fire.”

She said the ability to be flexible, “to roll with the punches and embrace being a lifelong learner” was invaluable this year especially.

Echoing Herro, Devaney-Wilkes said the hardest part of remote instruction was missing her students.

“I can’t wait to get back to the classroom,” she said. “That first Zoom call was pretty emotional. Seeing all their little faces — I cried.”

Trials and growth

Not long before completing her junior year at Marist, Libby Korth described how at first she struggled to stay motivated at home. Coming up with a routine was a game-changer, she said. “It kept me on track and kept me sane.”

Korth’s older brother pointed out that her experience with remote learning will prepare her well for college. “He said this is kind of how it feels your freshman year,” said Korth. “You have to create your own life and way of doing things.”

Jost’s daughter Katie, who will be a third grader at St. Ignatius this fall, said she loved the extra time with her family and her cat, Silo, who was delighted to be a snuggly study buddy.

“But at school when I do math, usually my teacher helps me,” said Katie. “When my mom and dad were doing stuff at home and I needed some help, that was kinda hard. Plus, not seeing my friends and teacher — it made me sad.”

Adriana Bobenrieth, who just wrapped up her sophomore year at Jesuit High School in Southwest Portland, can relate to the younger student.

Even though Bobenrieth’s an introvert, she’s eager for that first day back on campus. “I just can’t wait to hug every one of my friends,” she said.

Oldham, at Marist, said the nearly three months of digital learning highlighted for him “the importance of focusing on the work of a school that really matters.”

“You get into the frame of mind that everything is so important,” he said. “But in this situation you have to let go of quite a few things, and you realize some things might not be quite as critical as you thought. Relationships matter, physical proximity maters. And community — it truly matters.”