When the going gets tough, the faithful get going. That’s just what has been happening in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois since mid-March, when the threat of the coronavirus shut down Catholic schools and public Masses were no longer available until further notice. For the past several weeks, students have been remote learning, schools have been posting updates on social media, and many parish priests have been LIVE streaming Mass and rosaries.
Katie Forrester of Jerseyville is used to a routine. A mother of four and an English/religion teacher at St. Francis/Holy Ghost School in Jerseyville, her life right now — like all parents — is anything but routine. Schools were shut down because of the coronavirus and there is no telling when classes will resume.
“I have the best job in the world,” Forrester said. “I get to have conversations with teenagers who want to know the truth. I miss the comings and goings of the students. Just the laughing and joking. If our school year is over, I will feel let down. I just miss them.”
Forrester, like so many, is now finding herself with the daunting task of teaching her children while still doing her job. That means teaching or monitoring the work of three of her children, ages 12, 9, and 5. At the same time, she is checking the work of her own students.
“I gave my students weekly plans with set due dates,” Forrester said. “They can call me at any time. Everything needs to be submitted by Friday. I’m asking them writing prompts, for example, ‘How do they feel the coronavirus will impact our community?’ Everyone is just trying to do the best they can.”
Teachers are working around the clock to have remote learning opportunities for students as school is still in session despite the circumstances.
“When word came to us that school would be closed, teachers immediately got to work on putting together as ‘normal’ of a structure for our students as possible,” said Rachel Cunningham, principal at St. Agnes School in Springfield. “All worked countless hours to plan, prepare, and make themselves familiar with applications of technology that they had not used before. What a crash course it was! Staff, students, and parents have been wonderful with the adjustment. This situation has shown our parish and school community that we can work together in a difficult time and provide our students with continued learning opportunities outside of the traditional classroom setting.”
Examples of Catholic school teachers doing whatever it takes for their students while they learn at home has been endless. For example, there is the story of Julie Baldwin, a second-grade teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes in Decatur. She is delivering additional resources to students’ doorsteps. Baldwin is even remembering birthdays. For one student, that included a special birthday surprise which brought some much-needed smiles. That student’s mother called Baldwin, “One in a million.”
Since Catholic schools normally begin the school day with prayer, some schools are inviting students to continue that tradition at home. Principal Stephanie “Stevie” VanDeVelde from Our Saviour School in Jacksonville has led her school in opening prayer via social media. Additionally, VanDeVelde has read stories online to the youngest students. St. Boniface School in Edwardsville is posting videos of students at home leading the Bluejay Prayer. Several schools have also hosted a “virtual Spirit Week.”
Schools/priests utilize social media to bridge the gap
Like at most schools, students at St. Teresa High School in Decatur are being kept up to date through Facebook. At St. Teresa, students are urged to connect with their school chaplain, Father Steve Arisman, also on Facebook, as he celebrates Mass online at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Church in Mt. Zion and St. Isidore in Bethany. He has also celebrated Friday “chapel Mass” on Facebook at the St. Teresa school chapel, just as he does when regular school is in session.
“It is the best way I can stay connected because I miss them, and I can show I still care and to help them deal with the stress of everything,” Father Arisman said. “I want to bring Christ to them since they can’t come to him. I also hope that maybe I can bring Christ to someone who doesn’t know him or who has been away in hopes that when this is all over, they return to him. I hope and pray this time is fruitful. Staying connected with them also helps me cope and stay active as well. It’s united in Christ that we stay connected. “
At Father McGivney High School in Glen Carbon, principal Joseph Lombardi and other staff members are posting daily words of encouragement. In one of the earliest posts, Bobbie Madura, director of Student Services and a psychology teacher, appeared with her pet dog and told the students, “We are here working with you and we will get through this.”
At Little Flower School in Springfield, principal Bill Moredock is posting daily video updates to his students, called “Doc’s Daily Dose.” In his updates, he assures the students that their teachers are available to help and challenges the children to stay involved with school projects and to make the best of their time at home. “Keep a balance, do some schoolwork, have some fun, get outside and run around a little bit … don’t be too stressed out,” he told them.
What people need to remember
Moredock, who is not only principal at Little Flower but also a practicing licensed clinical psychologist, understands that suddenly being removed from the classroom can be difficult for students, teachers and parents.
“In my entire lifetime, I have never encountered something like this national health scare,” he said. “March 13 was truly a sad day as the reality of school closing became more and more apparent. Upon hearing the news, a sixth-grade student with tears streaming down her face, expressed fear that without her teacher, she would fail. My heart hurt as I tried to reassure her.
“Life with all its routines and trustworthy aspects has suddenly changed — the country plunged into a period of uncertainty,” he said, noting that children were sad because they were going to miss some things they were really looking forward to, like confirmation and the school play. They also miss their school friends.
Parents must lead students through all the changes, he said. “In this pandemic, parents have a unique opportunity to teach children appropriate responses in a challenging, unprecedented national and local health emergency. A steady, calm, prayerful, prudent, undeterred, proactive approach to this thing is preferable to the alternative. Remember, most of all, that children take their cues from parents,” he said. “Children are emotional sponges and they look to their parents for reassurance in times of fear and uncertainty.”
As for Quincy Notre Dame High School senior Maddie Peters, she says focusing on the good things in her life is what helps her get by. “School and friends are such a blessing, and it is hard to be away from them, but I know all this is part of God’s plan and it will all work out,” Peters said. “It’s just a hard situation for everyone.”