“Despite the many things we are ready to forget about 2020, I have asked my team to remember how they helped everyone succeed in difficult times,” said Dale Goodno, IT director for Valley Catholic School in Beaverton. (Courtesy Valley Catholic School)
“Despite the many things we are ready to forget about 2020, I have asked my team to remember how they helped everyone succeed in difficult times,” said Dale Goodno, IT director for Valley Catholic School in Beaverton. (Courtesy Valley Catholic School)

They built web pages and mastered robots, troubleshot log-in issues, responded to a deluge of software-related questions and even stood atop wobbly ladders to fix glitchy Wi-Fi extenders.

Many professionals rightly have been dubbed heroes of the pandemic, and schools’ tech whizzes — those who’ve ensured teachers could teach and students could learn — should likely be counted in that esteemed mix. For almost a year, Catholic school students in Oregon and nationwide have reaped the benefits of these often behind-the-scenes experts whose jobs have taken on a new significance.

“I can’t imagine facing some of the daunting challenges of the last 10 months without Ellie Gilbert’s expertise,” said Nicole Foran, principal of St. Mary’s Academy in Southwest Portland. Gilbert is the all-girls school’s director of instructional media and education technology.

During the pandemic, Gilbert’s responsibilities swelled. She created online resources for teachers and ran tech training camps over the summer, including a session on Swivl, a robot that has a dock for an iPad and can follow teachers around a classroom.

She also hosts morning drop-in tech sessions with the IT director and his assistant. “If I can give teachers a minute back in their day, that’s my marker of success,” she said.

Pre-pandemic, St. Mary’s Academy, like most Catholic high schools in western Oregon, had integrated technology into classes and had experience with designated distance learning days. But teachers hadn’t employed technology for long-term instruction.

The pandemic meant even the most experienced educators were like first-year teachers again, said Gilbert. “Yet the best teachers are the most experienced learners in the room,” she said. And when it came to learning how to adapt to ongoing online instruction, “the master teachers at St. Mary’s rose to the occasion.”

Many Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Portland, including St. Mary’s, are shifting to greater in-person instruction early in the new year. But even when classes are fully in person, Gilbert hopes the relationships she’s formed with teachers “will continue to provide meaning to their work,” she said. “My job has transformed in that I work more closely with teachers than before, and hopefully I can continue to be a resource they want to use.”

Carrie Coleman is STEM director and an innovation and design teacher at La Salle Prep in Milwaukie. She coached teachers on a variety of tools and platforms during the pandemic but said effectively using technology requires a shift in perspective. “First and foremost at Lasallian schools is a focus on the relationship with students and on building an inclusive community,” said Coleman. “But how do you do that when not in a classroom?”

To help answer that question, Coleman was part of a COVID-19 task force that interviewed 50 students about their experience with distance learning last spring. “We asked what teachers had done well and what teachers could do better,” Coleman said. “It was very eye-opening” and informed instruction and built stronger relationships.

Craig Huseby, IT director at Jesuit High School in Southwest Portland, echoed Coleman and Gilbert when describing one of the pandemic’s biggest hurdles. “We had the learning tools and experience with digital learning days, but curriculum was not set up for the long-haul,” he said. “People underestimated how difficult that would be to transition to a virtual environment.”

For example, if a teacher wanted to show a movie for history class and start and stop the film for discussions, “that’s very hard to do remotely,” said Huseby. But teachers, with his team’s help, were able to make the needed shifts.

“This experience showed me that if you commit to quality remote content it can be done,” he said. “I’ve been amazed at how much has been accomplished.”

Paul Hogan, principal of Jesuit, has been similarly amazed by Huseby, calling him “simply the best there is.”

“Craig can see the big picture, lead complex projects effectively but also empathize with student and teacher perspectives,” said Hogan.

Dale Goodno is IT director for Valley Catholic School in Beaverton. Because his team already had the capacity to provide 24-hour remote IT support to Maryville care facility — like Valley Catholic a ministry of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon — “our infrastructure was well-suited for our immediate needs when our schools moved online,” he said.

But the challenge was the multiplicity of needs. Valley Catholic has an early learning school, elementary and middle school, and a high school. “Every teacher has different requirements and different preferences,” he said. “For example one wanted a GoPro to demonstrate cooking and another needed a camera that could follow them at the chalkboard.”

Goodno said he’s proud of the creative ways his team responded. “Despite the many things we are ready to forget about 2020, I have asked my team to remember how they helped everyone succeed in difficult times,” he said.

Rosemarie El Youssef, principal of St. Therese School in Northeast Portland, is pictured cleaning, updating, and resetting the schools’ iPads in early January.(Courtesy Rosemarie El Youssef)

At small Catholic elementary schools, official tech-support positions don’t typically exist.

Rosemarie El Youssef is a first-year principal of St. Therese School in Northeast Portland. “I am the IT team” she said, laughing. She quickly added that she’s received essential support from the school and broader Catholic community.

When El Youssef began the job this summer, the school had outdated technology, teachers had limited training, and there essentially was no bandwidth.

“I was resetting passwords, walking people through Google Classroom and updating the school website,” said El Youssef. “I’ve also spent time atop a ladder trying to fix a Wi-Fi extender that wasn’t working.”

Third grade teacher Chelsea Baumbach recalled the first day of school.

“Our internet services were lacking, and my favorite memory is Rosemarie running from classroom to classroom helping teachers who were having trouble connecting,” said Baumbach. “I was so very impressed at how tirelessly she worked to make sure all teachers were able to get into their live online classes.”

Embracing humor and calm have been key this year, said El Youssef, recalling how early in the school year there was a major glitch with one of their Google products. If a student logged in to Google Meet before a teacher did, he or she had control of the class. Students could mute or unmute at will. “It became a game to see who could log on first,” she said.

Eventually El Youssef was able to resolve the issue, but for a time “it was frustrating and also hilarious,” she said. “With the kids in control it was like some dystopian novel.”

This is the first time El Youssef has worked at a Catholic school, and she’s been grateful for her proximity to a church. “I spent a lot of time sitting in the church, sometimes crying, sometimes praying for direction,” she said. “But I feel closer to God than ever, and the kids and their faith is so beautiful. They are why we’ve been doing this.”