January 2021 Struggles and Silver Linings: Teaching Through a Pandemic

For school communities in 2020, the changes wrought by the COVID pandemic have been multifaceted, complex, and difficult to process for students and teachers alike. To better understand these changes, we interviewed three Notre Dame alumnae who currently work in Catholic education: Jeana Caminiti ‘11 (first grade teacher at St. Ann's in Chicago, Ill.), Sarah McPherson ‘15 (fourth grade teacher at Saint Joseph's in Petersburg, Va.), and Stephanie Sonnick ‘15, ‘17 MAT (Campus Ministry Spiritual Life Coordinator at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.). 

Teaching Through a Pandemic 

by Elise Boratenski '15 and Danielle Kelleher '06

Struggles of the Pandemic

According to Jeana Caminiti, the greatest challenge for teachers is the inability to anticipate the many changes that are thrown at them on a regular basis. On any given day, one student may need to “go virtual” for two weeks, while another student returns to the classroom without their homework completed and without the materials that had been sent home with them. With volunteers excluded from the schools, many teachers no longer have a lunch break and must act as sanitation specialists. What’s more, amidst a year of financial insecurity for individuals and families, institutions are facing financial difficulty as well; some teachers have had their retirement matching eliminated due to budget constraints. Caminiti laments, "These conditions are unsustainable. Plain and simple."

Meanwhile, students are facing academic, social and emotional challenges.  Caminiti explains that at the elementary level, when students most need direct instruction and coaching, even in-person learning is “distant” as teachers must stay six feet from students. Younger remote students have trouble logging into Zoom calls and following links. At all age levels, students are facing difficulties in practicing the important academic-social skills of collaboration and communication. Sarah McPherson notes the challenge of students being in the same room and often the same seat all day long: “The worst part is kids not being able to move around and learn optimally, because behavioral issues pop up.” 

Jeana Caminiti '11 in her socially distanced classroom at St. Ann's in Chicago
(all photos courtesy Jeana Caminiti)

Social and emotional challenges have been accentuated at the high school and college level, as well. The college experience is fragmented at best. Professors have trouble connecting with students and knowing their needs, and students have trouble connecting with each other. Many of the daily interactions that make up the high school and college experiences no longer exist. Sonnick explains, “From large in-person gatherings at the beginning of the semester and shared inspiration in our office space, to casual chats after class and spontaneous run-ins with students on the University Green, it was very challenging to reimagine ministry and education without the ‘incarnate normalcy’ of a regular collegiate year.”

Sonnick notes another huge challenge that teachers face: hybrid learning, where teachers virtually teach a handful of e-learning students while also managing a classroom full of in-person students. Colleges and universities have different options depending on where they are located. Many offer virtual, in-person, hybrid, or like Seton Hall, a HyFlex (“hybrid flexible”) model, where students are given the choice to attend in person or virtually, or watch the lesson later. With a hybrid model, it is close to impossible to create any sort of camaraderie among the class members. Sonnick says, “Never getting to meet students was a challenge, because so much of a person's individual self is communicated in and through his or her physical presence.”  

Gratitude for the Good

Despite the challenges, there have been some unanticipated positives from Covid-era adaptations. The pandemic has forced many schools to make a fundamental shift toward innovative technology. Many K–8 schools are now supplying students with personal devices and some schools, such as St. Ann's in Chicago, are making strides toward a school-wide goal of personalized learning by using adaptive technological tools that allow teachers to meet students at their individual level.  

Such digital platforms have had unforeseen benefits. At Seton Hall University, Stephanie Sonnick has noticed “more openness, willingness and availability from colleagues [from] various departments to work collaboratively in support of our students.” The flexibility of these platforms is an asset for teachers and students alike. In a short period of time, the Seton Hall Campus Ministry team witnessed an increase in non-residential commuter student participation in Bible studies and other small groups.

On Seton Hall’s campus, Sonnick has witnessed an unexpected gift. “The physical, mental, and emotional space created by the slower pace of COVID life in higher education has given students the gift of a greater ability to hear and respond to the movements of their own hearts. Part of our duty is to recognize when this reckoning is happening in our students and to journey with them, to help them understand not just the content of a course, but also the greater realities of who they are as human beings created in God's image.” 

St. Ann's students play outside wearing masks

Caminiti explains that at St. Ann’s, the pandemic has sharpened the school’s focus on its mission. "The pandemic has forced our school to remain true to our core values: to serve, to lead and to love with Christ as our model.  The ways in which we live out our core values look a little different than they used to. We are called to serve by wearing a mask and washing our hands, to lead by encouraging others to follow social-distancing guidelines, to love by respecting the health of others." These acts of service are not always easy, McPherson notes, but the acknowledgement that “this is hard” for teachers and students alike has made both parties grateful for the sacrifices being made so that school can be in-person. 

It is impossible to know what the future holds, but it seems that some of the changes to education are likely here to stay. Digital platforms and one-to-one device ratios are just the tip of the iceberg of technological innovation taking place in education in the wake of COVID-19. Perhaps, more important than the technological changes, though, are the intangible changes in the teachers and students themselves: the resilience that comes with overcoming hardship, the intense gratitude for each other’s efforts to keep everyone safe and sane; in essence, the recognition of a need, in Sonnick’s words, “for community, for authenticity, for connection — for God’s presence.” 

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