In response to COVID-19 inspired changes in how teachers are educating their students in Catholic schools throughout the Archdiocese of Washington, the archdiocesan Catholic Schools Office is providing those teachers with professional development, tech support and guidance on best practices for virtual learning.

“My primary role is to support our schools, our instructional leaders and our teachers in using the best technology possible to improve instruction and the achievement of their students,” said Tiffany Wilson, the director for instructional technology for the CSO.

Wilson said her office is “assisting (teachers and schools) with tech support, webinars and things like that.”

After abruptly shutting their doors March 13 to in-person learning and switching to online distance learning March 16 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Catholic schools reopened this fall. “The instruction our teachers were able to deliver in the spring was remarkable and we are confident that the fall transition to in-person, hybrid, or virtual will be successful,” said Vicky McCann, director for curriculum and instruction for archdiocesan Catholic schools.

Schools reopened following one of three models: distance learning, where all instruction will be offered virtually with no in-person gatherings for students; blended learning that combines in-person and distance learning where strict health and safety measures are enforced; and modified classroom, where schools will be open for in-person instruction with preventative measures enforced and face coverings and social distancing required at all times. 

A combined total of about 26,000 students attend classes at more than 90 archdiocesan and independent Catholic pre-kindergarten through high schools located in the Archdiocese of Washington. The archdiocese’s Catholic schools are located in Washington, D.C., and five Maryland counties: Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s.

With the different opening modalities, Catholic school teachers have had to incorporate new technology into their teaching methods.

“It is important to provide professional development to our teachers that covers a wide range of topics, from assessment to social-emotional learning. All topics are important during this digital teaching environment,” McCann said, adding “providing instructional support to our teachers is currently my number one priority.”

Wilson said that her office helps educators embrace and make the best use of new technology.

“We are teaching them how to teach differently,” Wilson said. “They all know how to teach, they all know the pedagogy. The change for them now is ‘How do I teach a student who I do not see face to face?’ and ‘How do I manage my classroom when they (students) are on screen and not in eyeshot?’”

The CSO’s instructional technology office, Wilson said, “has created webinars to help coach teachers into this technology. We are also creating ‘how-to’ videos that they can watch and use as they adapt to how to use this (technology) in their day-to-day work with students.”

Wilson said “one of our biggest challenges is that people are not familiar with the technology.” She added that that another challenge is that different schools use different technology, for instance some schools use iPads and others use HP Pro Tablets.

“The majority of teachers bought into and started using the technology right away,” Wilson said. “However, it wasn’t mandated that teachers use technology before, but now it is.”

Professional development such as familiarizing educators with new technology and helping them adapt to distance and remote teaching “is a priority for our teachers,” said Wendy Anderson, the archdiocese’s associate superintendent for academics and leadership. “Our Catholic Schools Office continues to ensure educators have the technical skills needed to support student success in these unprecedented times. “  

To that end, Wilson said, her team is “working on a series of best practices documents to help teachers figure out how such things as how to monitor homework, how to do quizzes, how to communicate with parents and how to make sure we protect the privacy of students and their information.”

One of the goals of the instructional technology office is to help educators become familiar with and comfortable using the new technology required for distance learning.

“While we want our students to be ultimately successful, we want our teachers to know they are doing a good job and be confident,” Wilson said. “That’s what makes a great teacher – when they walk into a classroom with confidence, and we want them to have that same confidence when they are online.”

She added that learning new technology can be daunting.

“The job of teacher in this day and age pre-COVID was already a complicated task, helping students deal with social issues and emotional issues and finding success no matter how they came to us,” she said. “When you add this technology, it offers the additional challenge of reaching students you cannot touch or look in the eye. But, it is within the grasp of all of our teachers to be successful with online education.”

Educators, Wilson said, are employing learning management systems (LMS) such as Flipgrid, Microsoft Teams, Rediker and See Saw. While new technology is being employed in this era of COVID, she stressed that “the fundamentals (of teaching) are never going to change, but how we approach the curriculum is changing.”

Wilson said that along with the learning curve for teachers, parents have also had to familiarize themselves with new education modalities.

“God bless our parents because they have endured so much during this time,” she said. “They not only have this new mandate to help their kid in their education in a way they haven’t done before, but they also have the stresses of the pandemic and working from home. Our parents are our champions. They have stuck with us, they have plowed through with us.”

While teaching methods have changed to meet the demands of stemming the spread of the coronavirus, commitment to teaching the faith has not.

“Archdiocese of Washington teachers are committed to providing our students with strong faith knowledge and academic rigor in both the modified classroom and the digital school environment,” Anderson said.

Wilson also stressed that. “We are still required and expected to provide (students) the religious education we have promised to give them,” she said. “Our kids are still going to have First Communion and Confirmation and all the effort we put into getting them to those sacraments. We are still spreading the Gospel and promoting identity with Christ. It is just different now. The way we share is different, but it is still the same message.”