When the Archdiocese of Washington made the decision to transfer all Catholic schools in March to a distance-learning model due to the coronavirus pandemic, teachers and administrators had one weekend to switch gears. 

For 28 percent of the 91 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, when classes began on the first day of school for the 2020-21 school year, students tuned in once again from home – prepped and geared to embrace the new school year at a distance through online classes. 

Wendy Anderson, associate superintendent of academics and leadership in the archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office, said that the office “allowed schools to develop a model that fit best for their community.” Schools chose between distance learning, in-person classes, or a hybrid model. 

“Now that we’re opening with notice, our teachers have had a whole summer to prepare,” she said, adding that the Catholic Schools Office has helped support schools with professional development workshops and other resources that will assist teachers through the year – regardless of the school’s chosen learning model. 

For schools in distance learning, Anderson said one challenge will be engaging kids online, ensuring that teachers can make connections with their students. 

“Nobody is better at it than Catholic school teachers because that’s what they’re in for – the kids,” she said. “We’re really proud of our teachers.” 

Keeping Catholic identity and academic excellence at the forefront, Anderson said teachers are using “a lot of creativity to assess kids and hold them to the highest standards that we have.”

At. St. Mary’s School in Landover Hills, LaSandra Hayes, the school’s principal, said she was very proud of her faculty and staff, particularly how quickly they went from in-class learning to a distance model in the spring, “rather seamlessly.” 

And as the school year began this fall, Hayes said that they will “take things to the next level,” with upgraded cabling, teaching on-site and new resources. 

“We are ready, and we are excited to offer very robust and engaging online learning for our students,” she said. “You better believe we are doing the next best thing.” 

With faith, knowledge and service at the forefront of St. Mary’s School, Hayes said the school continues to have weekly Mass online, and daily prayer before and after school. 

“I believe very much in community and helping students know that they’re being given a wonderful opportunity to attend a Catholic school,” she said, adding that the school emphasizes preparing leaders for tomorrow. 

While the school year might be different than years before, Hayes said that her school is prepared and equipped to make it the best they can. 

“We’re excited, grateful for the opportunity to be in this situation to show and prove that it can be done,” Hayes said. “This is doable. We can do this and we can do this well. I really believe that in my heart.” 

The students at Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C., will continue their classes in both English and Spanish from home to start off this school year. Elise Heil, the principal, said that having a “really strong set of resources in both English and Spanish” – in both hardcover and online versions – has helped the school during digital learning. 

In addition, the school sends weekly schedules to families with videos for explanations and extra activities for students wanting or needing a challenge. 

“It’s a one-stop-shop, so the families can plan the week as they need to plan,” she said. “We understand everyone’s schedule is different, so we’re finding that balance between giving families structure and also flexibility.” 

Each class will have two Zoom calls each day to check in – one in the morning and one in the afternoon, at the same time every day, to help create a routine. Through support of title programs and donations, the school was able to creatively ensure that each family has enough devices for students to participate. 

Heil said that the Sacred Heart community, much like a family, has been extremely helpful and flexible while figuring out the new school year. With faith formation and a commitment to academic excellence at the center of the community, Heil said the two go hand in hand. 

“You can’t have strong academics, strong learning if you don’t have a strong social, emotional base – a faith life,” she said. “Prayer and our faith has been a tremendous asset for us. We’ve built a community built on faith and love and trust.”