No amount of education, professional development, or experience could adequately prepare the hundreds of teachers throughout the Archdiocese of Washington in navigating the transition from our classrooms to our homes teaching from a distance. 

However, this spring as I suddenly found myself facing down the reality of an entire quarter of prepping and then executing online religious instruction, I immediately turned to the only help I knew – God. Retreating to my knees in front of the tabernacle housed in the school’s quiet chapel on the Friday in mid-March that turned out to be the last day of school, the sudden appearance of tears running down my face surprised me.

Reflecting back, at the time I was not worried about the practical challenges ahead – because I had yet to wake at 6 a.m. and work until midnight changing lesson objectives, assigning effective learning assignments, constantly on call answering emails, forever correcting and grading work submissions. 

I was not upset about the possibility of infection myself because the virus’s spread at the time was still contained, and I was following CDC issued guidelines, wiping down desks with disinfectant and washing my hands repeatedly. Instead I believe I was already mourning the loss of presence – a vital ingredient to my ministry, the vocation of educating young people in their faith.

I did not know for sure then – but perhaps already suspected the cancellation of so many rituals commemorating the end of the year: Founder’s Day Mass; spiritual retreats; sporting events; final classroom presentations; and showcases of talent, such as the art show, spring musical and band and vocal concerts.

More importantly, no longer could I welcome the bright smiles of 16-year-olds at 8 a.m., participate in conversations with an engaged department, or be energized by freshmen just starting high school, and in some cases, their faith journeys. My daily interactions – some wonderful, some insightful, some humorous, and some heart-wrenching that all made each school day unique and taught me above all to put my trust in God.

Now as these unprecedented days have turned into months, and the season of Lent gave way to the renewal of Easter and spring literally unfolded outside our now “homeschool” windows, I see with clearer vision some of the unknowns I suspect crashed down upon me the last day in the chapel. While still missing my students tremendously, it is their continued creativity, silly pictures, energetic presentations, even witty puns which bring me connectedness, joy, and the lessons about my faith I regularly absorbed in the school building. I can still learn from my students – I just hope they can still learn from my efforts.

First, I owe tremendous gratitude to the entire community – administrators, teachers, families, and my caring students for the strength and support mutually given and received each day during the quarantine. Along with my family – including my own two children who are also currently enrolled – the entire community is the backbone of the blessings sent to me over the last eight weeks demonstrating God’s unending love of his children.

On the practical side, I wholeheartedly realize how fortunate I am to be employed let alone working at a school with all of the technology already in place to (almost) seamlessly transition to distance education. Having a job has given purpose and consistency to my days and new ways to teach lifelong lessons. That said, Wi-Fi access can be uneven and affect my students’ ability to access those platforms. Being of a somewhat advanced age -- not quite a native resident living in the world of apps but allowed visitation to the land of technology -- made my learning curve a bit steeper. My aforementioned teen sons and some curiosity and willingness on my part to try out new online resources definitely helped. 

With the older boys responsible for their own learning (what great practice for their upcoming days in college!), it was full-speed ahead with online education, and my thoughts turned to providing the students in my Intro to Scripture and Morality class with the best I could provide them in terms of content, community and compassion. Once again, I turned to the Holy Spirit, and God responded; once again, I learned more from my students than they could ever learn from me.

(Unsplash photo/Annie Spratt)

Whether teaching the juniors models of Catholic social teaching using real-time positive and negative examples from the COVID-19 crisis, or traveling back with the prophets during the Babylonian exile -- every part of my lessons seemed to be saying something new to me as a sign of the times. If the exiled Jewish people thrown out of their homeland more than 2,500 years ago could hope in God, why couldn’t we? The words of Habakkuk 2:3 sounded fresher than ever: “For the vision is a witness for the appointed time, a testimony to the end; it will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.” Everything happens in God’s time, a lesson for all in a time of pandemic.

Despite the upheaval in my students’ lives, overall their effort never waned, their enthusiasm for challenging projects remained intact, and their individuality shone through – even electronically. Throughout the many, many challenges of how to communicate expectations clearly and justly, how to properly assess the student’s understanding of material while offering flexibility, my heart only expanded for them and their accomplishments. 

The students’ trust in God and eventually in me resulted in creative, thoughtful and insightful reflections. This gift of connection with my students, of awareness they have given it their all, of times meeting with them to pray a couple times of week, all sustains me. The greatest lesson of these last eight weeks for me? No matter the distance – God’s grace changes everything.

(Lynnea Mumola teaches religion at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., and is a former reporter for the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington and a contributing writer for the paper and its website.)