West Roxbury, Mass.— Mrs. Kathy Gallagher remembers the day her son Michael woke up to a whole new world.
It was a Tuesday morning— almost two weeks ago.
Due to the growing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, Catholic Memorial School had switched to full-time online learning.
So instead of dropping her son off at school, she watched Michael, an 8th Grader at CM, prepare for middle school theology in their family kitchen.
The sight looked odd at first. By 8 A.M., a few leftover coffee cups and maybe some dishes from breakfast typically remained on the kitchen table.
That morning, textbooks, notepads, highlighters, and a few pencils sat there. A green light from her son’s laptop illuminated the room.
It looked strange, she thought. However, watching her son log-in to Microsoft Teams did not. In fact, the technology looked all-too familiar.
Parents from across the CM community echoed a similar sentiment after the first few weeks of CM’s transition to online learning. Together, they marveled at how the resources and leadership already in place at CM allowed the school to pivot and launch its virtual classroom in a matter of days.
In fact, Mrs. Gallagher remembers how Ms. Ellen Eberly, a long-time English faculty member, had required every student-athlete and their parents to set up Microsoft Teams at the beginning of their middle school hockey season.
“Because she made her students do that for hockey, it made the parents feel as if they were on top of it too,” said Mrs. Gallagher, whose son played on the team.
Ms. Eberly used the platform each year at the beginning of her English classes too. Every September, she wanted parents and students to learn how to operate On Campus and Microsoft Teams. Using both those platforms gave her the ability to expand upon instructions and remind students of upcoming assignments.
“The kids were not shocked about using Microsoft Teams,” said Ms. Eberly.
“They knew how to go online, how to see my feedback, and how to chat with me and work with each other.
The app gave her the ability to group students and encourage them to collaborate on assignments.
“With Microsoft Teams, it’s instant communication,” Ms. Eberly added.
“When I was using it for the hockey season, other teams were cancelling games the day of. In seconds, I was able to get the message out to parents.
Parents now appreciate her use of the digital platform in a whole new light.
“Michael has a lot of friends at different schools across the city,” said Mrs. Gallagher.
“They were closing down and trying to move online but were having trouble. It might have taken them weeks. I’m amazed how CM was ahead of the curve and ready to go from day one.”
At the high school level, teachers had used online video platforms long before the transition to online learning. Often enough, they used video platforms such as Zoom to host lectures with experts from varying fields of higher learning.
Last March, students in Mr. Brian Mulcahey and Mr. Brian Palm’s science classes joined a teleconference with Ms. Julie Spencer and Mr. Craig McGrogan. The teleconference allowed Ms. Spencer and Mr. McGrogan, two senior education officers at the Great Barrier Reef Aquarium in Queensland, Australia, to conduct a lecture on marine biology from thousands of miles away.
More recently, Mr. Palm, the Assistant Head of School, had sought to push his students a step further. He experimented with an app called Voice-Thread in his AP Environmental Science class this past fall.
“I used the device to basically stretch the boundaries of the classroom and increase student interaction after school and in their homes,” said Mr. Palm.
The Voice-Thread App allowed Mr. Palm’s students to submit a slide on a topic of their choice into an online forum. Once submitted, other students could leave their own questions or comments on the margins of the slide. The teacher could even leave pre-recorded videos and questions to address areas of concern.
In his first week of online learning in AP Environment Science, senior Paul Guiney found the platform especially helpful.
“The app has helped us with the transition to online learning because it allows students to convey information through videos, comments, pictures, and drawings all in one place,” said Paul.
“This makes it easier for students like me to learn and share info with each other.”
Thanks to their familiarity with technology and willingness to collaborate, the entire faculty experienced a seamless adjustment during their first week online.
In Ms. Katherine Arndorfer’s theology class, students logged-in to the On Campus platform, where they submitted visual representations of how Moses’ character developed throughout the Book of Exodus. After each submission, students left comments on each other’s work and offered constructive feedback.
Meanwhile in Mr. John Aversa’s Calculus class, students used Khan Academy and the College Board’s AP Central online resources for video lessons and randomized assignments. The online resources provided a needed boost in preparation for upcoming AP Calculus exams.
“I’ve been so impressed with how quickly [faculty] have turned around and implemented classes,” said Mrs. Kerry Weschrob, a West Roxbury resident.
Mrs. Weschrob noted how her sons, Connor, a freshman, and Liam, a senior, had already been submitting papers online and operating Google Meetings before the transition.
“[Online Learning] has made our lives at home so much easier,” she added.
“I know what they’re doing at all times. It’s taken a lot of stress off my mind. It has really helped us do what we’re supposed to do, which is to not go outside and stay where we are.”
Of course, the transition brought about its fair share of headaches and growing pains. On some days, students needed more time outside their 40-minute virtual class periods for feedback on assignments. Other days called for more built-in breaks to avoid too much screen time.
For students with ADHD like Mrs. Gallagher’s son Michael, too much screen time made it harder to stay focused.
Taking into consideration the needs of its entire school community along with the extended school-closure order from State Gov. Charlie Baker, CM eliminated its normal eight-period cycle last Friday.
They instead switched to a blocked schedule that freed-up more time for students between class periods.
“After they tried one approach that first week, it seemed like [the administration] took the feedback and made additional changes for the second week, which meant dropping that third period,” said Mrs. Gallagher.
The adjustment gave Mrs. Gallagher peace of mind.
Reflecting on the change, she believes CM’s ability to pivot and meet the needs of its community separates the school from the rest of the pack.
“Their ability to take the feedback and incorporate it into the routine has been great,” said Mrs. Gallagher.
“During times like these, I’ll always be thankful for CM’s willingness to remain flexible and remain ahead of the curve.
Looking ahead, few people know for sure how the pandemic will end. From day-to-day, the future appears more uncertain than ever.
However, the CM Leadership Team says the school will not miss a beat. The school knows that, when its community needs it most, it will produce a world-class education for its students.
For many members of the school community, that education represents a sign of normalcy amid chaos.
It represents a community rallying behind a mission.
Better yet, it represents a hope for tomorrow.