SPRINGFIELD — During a recent honors chemistry class, Pope Francis Preparatory School teacher Nicole Woltschlaeger checked in on several lab groups. “I popped in and out of the groups to see if they were struggling with the problem, only I was doing it from a screen, not in person,” said Woltschlaeger, who like all teachers is conducting her classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement this week that schools will remain closed for the remainder of the academic year, many districts are struggling to adjust to remote teaching. But for Pope Francis Prep, a private Catholic high school in Springfield, it’s business as usual, with students attending virtual classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. with no change in curriculum.
“We were very fortunate to already have a one-to-one model for every student, so each of them has a Microsoft Surface Pro (tablet computer),” said Paul Harrington, head of the school. “All of our books are ebooks and there is very little paper at the school already. We discourage students from turning in assignments on paper and our teachers are very comfortable using technology in their classrooms, so that has made it easier.”
There are 340 students at the high school and 35 teachers. Students are expected to attend all of the classes they would have gone to at school. Attendance is taken every day in every class. Teachers use Zoom, Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams to connect with each of their classes. There are four periods with 15-minutes breaks in between. “We opted for a very regimented format in order to limit any loss of learning,” Harrington said. “So from the first day students were home, which was March 16, they were basically mirroring their school day.” Woltschlaeger said teachers were so eager to get students into a routine they overdid it the first few days. “When we first kicked off we might have been too aggressive because the feedback from parents was that their kids were in front of their computers for 10 hours a day,” she said. “We needed to figure out how to use different resources, how to make the best use of the 75-minute class time, and we started limiting homework, which in turn reduced the screen time. Now I think we have all settled into a routine.”
Sophia Roselli is a 16-year-old sophomore at the high school.
“All of the teachers have been excellent in conducting classes. They utilize Google Classroom, which we have been using all year. Zoom has been integrated daily for instruction,” she said. “My teachers have done a great job keeping my classes challenging, yet manageable.”
Roselli said while her school day remains the same, her homework has been lighter.
“This reduction allows us to be present and focused during class time,” she said.
For Woltschlaeger the biggest challenge has been engaging with students virtually.
“I teach three classes a day and it would be pretty boring for them to hear me talk the entire time,” she said.
Instead, she has found resources online that allow students to do virtual experiments. Sometimes she uses kits she has at home as props for lessons, and she is also using the Zoom breakout classroom feature to give students a chance to interact with each other.
“It’s pretty amazing how many resources have become available to teachers in the past few weeks,” she said. “Programs that you used to have to pay for are now free and it makes it a lot easier for students to access. The University of Colorado has some wonderful simulations for chemistry and physics classes that I have been utilizing. I can also share my screen with students if I need to show them how to solve a problem mathematically.”
“Some students have taken to the platform, but others are still reluctant to speak up in front of their peers, which actually isn’t any different than in an actual classroom,” Woltschlaeger said. “What has become harder is being able to read their backlit faces. What I usually do is I scroll through their faces, and if I see a furrowed brow or someone looks confused I will ask them if they have any questions.”
Woltschlaeger said she has noticed a drop in morale as the weeks go on.
“They are starting to look depressed,” she said. “When this first got off the ground everyone was looking giddy. It was this unreal feeling. There was this weird and nervous energy and the kids were goofy, but it has definitely settled down and the kids are very serious in a way they haven’t been before.”
During a recent class she decided to let the students leave early.
“It was beautiful outside and they honestly looked so sad and I just decided to have them solve a problem and then sent them outside. I told them to go outside without their cellphones to get some fresh air and have the sun touch their face,” she said.
For Roselli, being away from her friends has been difficult, although they keep in touch through social media and FaceTime. Extracurricular activities that make up part of the school experience are harder to duplicate than classes, she said.
“The hardest part of being away from school has been adjusting to the new routine,” Roselli said. “During the school year, my schedule is filled with school, sports practices and games, club meetings, and activities with friends. I miss seeing all of my friends, classmates, coaches and the staff at Pope Francis.”
Harrington said he is conscious of the emotional impact this has not only on students but also staff. Recently he and several administrators drove to all of the teachers’ houses to drop off cookies and some encouraging words.
“We just wanted them to know we love them, that we miss them and that we know how challenging this is, but also that they are doing an incredible job making sure our students stay on track,” he said.
The school has held virtual trivia nights and a virtual talent show that students could participate in.
“We are very active on our social media and we want the students and staff and parents to stay as connected to each other as possible while being apart,” he said.
Now that school buildings will remain closed for the year, Harrington and his team are working on ways to offer seniors some of those formative high school experiences.
“We have already talked with our vendors about pushing back the date for prom and possibly having a field day this summer,” he said. “As for graduation we have talked about doing something in the fall perhaps around Thanksgiving or Christmas when students are home from college. They can wear their caps and gowns and celebrate with their families, because we know how important that is to them and to us.”