At 8 a.m., there are seven-plus emails crowding the student’s inbox on their iPad. The school bell has sounded…well, the virtual school bell. On Thursday, March 12, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWineannounced that all public, private, and charter schools would close to ensure public health during the Covid-19 pandemic. While many educators had to quickly brainstorm ideas and rally resources, the administration at Roger Bacon High School had already prepared the faculty and staff for such a move.
Emails were circulating about programs and virtual sites that would aid teachers in instruction. One virtual meeting site I used with students on the Community Outreach Board (founded by our brother, the late Conrad Rebmann) was Zoom. This program would soon become integral to delivering online instruction. All employees were summoned for a meeting with the principal immediately after school that Thursday and were told Friday would be the last day we would see students for at least three weeks. We needed to prepare them for the online transition.
Friday, March 13th, was anything but normal. Students received instructions for websites and for downloading necessary tools for their iPad. (Textbooks at Roger Bacon are now online so students always have the resources they need.) In my Service Learning course for juniors and seniors, I instructed them to download Zoom and gave them a quick crash course, knowing that they could no longer interact with each other in a discussion-based class.
I heard from several students about the inconvenience of the Governor’s actions. Others said it was an overreaction to a small problem. Drawing on my thoughts as a postulant, when I had so much instruction in youth protection, I said, “If all this hassle and burden that I do saves one life, then it is worth it.” Overall, many saw this moratorium of physical attendance as more or less a vacation. It sunk in quickly that it was anything but.
Ready, set, go
The weekend was filled with tasks to prepare for the following week. Students were given that Monday off as a “snow day.” This allowed the faculty to gather and work within departments to troubleshoot programs and prepare our online platform for virtual instruction. We were instructed to send an email to our students every school day at 8 a.m. This would provide an agenda with directions for what was expected daily. Many began recording their lessons using the camera provided on our school-issued laptops. This was not new to me; I had been making videos of my lessons since early in my teaching career. Now, countless teachers across America are doing it daily.
Creating videos for online instruction is dynamically different than in-person teaching. There is no audience to feed off, something many priests are encountering now when they preach at livestreamed Mass. You also want smooth transitions between the different elements of your lesson – no fumbling virtually through your slides or websites. In other words, no one wants to see how the sausage is made. A good lesson, like any presentation, needs to be dynamic. Little did I know this form of delivery was to become “The New Normal” well after three weeks.
After the first week I quickly realized I needed to diversify instruction even more, so I introduced Zoom to my students. One day a week, I do a virtual classroom. I teach four freshman classes, which equals about 85 students. To help educators, Zoom had informed customers they would remove the participant limit and time restriction for every person in education.
Hosting 85 students became possible – but would be very different from a regular classroom. Students are muted upon entry, but I begin every virtual class with prayer – praying especially for our whole world, and all those who are victims to sickness and suffering of Covid-19. Then I can share my screen and begin using PowerPoint with my voice.
At various times I offer a reflection question and invite students to think and respond. Since everyone is muted, a student can raise his or her hand virtually. I can unmute them, and they can respond to the question or provide an insight. Other students also see the classmate who is speaking, which allows a visual connection. When they finish, they are muted again, and I go to the next person who has their hand raised virtually. Overall, the lesson goes on for about 45 minutes, approximately the same time as our normal classes at RB. Students get a chance to see each other, me, hear a familiar voice, endure my silly jokes, and interact with the material. In that short amount of time, there is some normalcy.
Now, my classroom is via the internet and my desk is the long table in the recreation room at St. Clement Friary. Hanging a sign that reads, “Silence Please. Recording in Progress,” alerts brothers that school is in session. A few friars have commented, “If you teachers do a good job with all this online stuff, are you afraid that you will be out of a job?” I smile, realizing that online instruction can never replace the experience of direct, face-to-face interaction.
The whole world is discovering this reality. While talking on the phone with family is great, and Facetime helps bridge the social distancing gap, we need to hug one another and talk in person with our friends. There is a wisdom in the Church that mandates the Sacraments must be done in person. While teaching virtually is effective, it is anything but ideal. Now as I talk to students who have just completed their fourth week of online instruction, they’re telling me something I never thought I would hear: “I really miss going to school.”
(Roger Lopez is a faculty member at Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati.)
Keeping the faith
Roger Lopez asked his freshmen Theology students to create a message that others need to hear from God amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. These were among the responses posted last week on Roger Bacon High School’s Facebook page.