In this time of shelter at home and self isolation in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19, educators in Archdiocese of Washington Catholic schools have done an “amazing” job of using digital technology to continue teaching students, according to the director for educational technology for the Catholic Schools Office.

“I would give them (Catholic school teachers) an A-plus,” said Shannon Norris. “What they are doing is very hard to do, and they are doing it very well.”

Norris said she and her team have been “providing a lot of professional development online for teachers, supporting schools and seeing what is working and what are the challenges and offering guidelines” to educators.

She added that the team hosts weekly online meetings with principals “to go over any problems, answer questions, and offer best practices and resources.”

Working alongside Norris are other officials from the Archdiocese of Washington's Catholic Schools Office, including Vicky McCann, the director of curriculum and instruction for Catholic schools; Wendy Anderson, associate superintendent for academics; and Anne Dillon, director for special education.

In addition, the archdiocese has lead technology coaches who train and support teachers in “the effective use of instructional technology.” Those coaches are Kitty Shadman, Mary DelBianco, Catherine Tobin, Mary Ellen Howard and Hannah Ruckstuhl.

“These coaches are educators who have an expertise in technology and curriculum,” Norris explained. “They have led virtual collaboration days with professional development for our educators, familiarizing them with digital tools and how to utilize them in their classrooms.” 

Kelly Branaman, associate superintendent for the Archdiocese of Washington, praised the team for “enthusiastically sharing their 'tech-spertise' with their fellow Catholic educators.”

Officials from the Archdiocese of Washington's Catholic Schools Office are shown in a Zoom meeting with archdiocesan educators as they collaborate on distance learning for students. (Courtesy photo)

“We have been preparing guidelines throughout the phases (of virtual learning),” Norris said. “We are ensuring every teacher is engaging with all of their students and each student has a minimum amount of work each week.”

Norris noted “there's a lot of challenges” to making sure students continue to learn during this time of quarantine.

“Catholic schools are not funded by the state, so each (Catholic) school environment is different, each school's financial state is different,” she said. “We have some students who do not have the Internet or even a device at home. We also have cases where the parents are also working from home and there is only one device in the home, so the kids have to get online in the evening after their parents are done working.” 

Norris said the Catholic Schools Office “has been applying for grants to get devices and computers to the students who need them.”

She added that “there was a little bit of a hiccup” early on as educators began virtual learning. “We had to learn best practices and what the requirements are for everyone's online safety,” she said.

Despite the challenges of establishing online distance education, Norris pointed out that “Archdiocese of Washington students have been learning since the day they walked out of their buildings. They have literally never stopped learning since they walked out of the buildings on March 13.”

During this unusual time, Norris said that “everyone's learning. The families are learning, the students are learning, and the teachers are learning. It's amazing how adaptive our educators have been.”

“Hats off to our educators - without them being able to adapt, learning would not be happening. They have really made it work, they figured out things to continue educating their students,” Norris said. “It shows just how amazing our educators are.”

Educators “are being forced into this (virtual learning), they did not have a choice, but it probably surprised them to learn what their own abilities are,” she said.

In an earlier interview with the Catholic Standard, Bill Ryan, the outgoing archdiocesan secretary for Catholic Schools, said he is “incredibly proud of the amazing teachers and principals who have risen to the challenge to provide meaningful learning experiences and opportunities for students to come together as a faith community under these very unusual and unexpected circumstances.” 

Norris noted that “I'm hoping once we get back in our classrooms, some of this use of technology to educate and engage our students will be incorporated in the classrooms. It doesn't matter how you share God's message and educate God's children as long as you keep doing it. And I think we are doing it very well.”