Trey and Ashleigh Petitto, a sophomore and senior respectively, of Notre Dame High School in Clarksburg, easily transitioned into their ‘new normal’ remote learning space at home, which is frequently visited by their dog Rocco.

While the classrooms in the Catholic schools in West Virginia remain empty, school administration and parents see the challenge of remote learning as an opportunity to illuminate how strong they are.

“We are not just trying to deal with things and get through this uncertain time. We are taking what some see as a mess and turning it to an opportunity to utilize and enhance everything we already had in place,” said Superintendent Mary Ann Deschaine.

She agrees the last couple weeks and the days ahead have been and are indeed challenging mentally and emotionally, but the standards put into place years ago to constantly fulfill the mission have prepared the diocesan schools for this time.

From technology and online learning to student assessments that don’t just occur once but multiple times during the school year, Deschaine said her schools are not falling behind.

“I’m not saying we don’t have our obstacles, but I am saying we attack them with a positive, grateful attitude in a Christ-Centered environment,” she said.

While no one could have ever predicted the current “remote schooling” situation, the schools’ continual improvements in technology integration, online learning, and networking over the last 20 years have made the transition from classroom to home based learning smooth for all grades in the diocesan schools.

“Our efforts in the Catholic schools ramped up in 2001, when our focus turned to integrating technology into every classroom at all grade levels,” said Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Hornyak. “We became more forward thinking in 2008, when we introduced Chromebooks to our faculty and students. From that point on teachers were trained continually on Google apps for education and began using it daily.

“Fast forward to today and our teachers and students are using online platforms – teaching tools, apps, and assessments – seamlessly,” she said. “Therefore the only thing major that has changed is the four walls that surround the student. We were able to adapt on the fly.

“I give our teachers, students, and parents the ultimate kudos,” she said. “It’s exciting to see how the years of training and implementation have taken off.”

Hornyak said the schools are grateful to the many donors, grants, and major gifts they rely on to fund their ever-changing and improving technology. Schools from all over the state recognize how valuable these investments are and now the community can see as well.

“Teachers at St. Joseph Catholic School and St. Joseph Central Catholic High School (in Huntington) are providing their students with virtual lessons, assignments, and activities through online platforms such as Google Classroom, Renweb, Seesaw, and Remind App. Teachers are sharing videos and YouTube clips of themselves teaching concepts, reading stories, and explaining problems to solve,” said Dr. Carol Templeton, principal of both schools. “Teachers have been very creative and purposeful in their approach to providing their students with a variety of rich and stimulating virtual learning environments.”

Recheal Fuscardo, principal at St. Joseph the Worker Grade School in Weirton, said her teachers are even providing opportunities to take learning outside through virtual field trips, to zoos, historical locations, and museums to continue to enrich learning.

“Not only are we continuing to connect academically with our students, but we are connecting spiritually as well,” she said, as school Masses and Stations of the Cross are live streamed weekly on their Facebook page.

Hornyak said social media posts showcase the fact that Christ remains the heart and strength of the schools.

“When the reality of the mandated school closure set in; I held a Zoom meeting with my faculty and staff; and we brainstormed ways to reach the students and actually interact with them,” Nicole Folio, principal of St. Mary’s School in Clarksburg said. “The first thing we decided was to Live Stream our daily prayer. As the principal I lead daily prayer every day at school, so I started Live streaming the daily prayer at noon, from my home, Monday – Friday for families to view and join in.”

That decision sparked a chain reaction. Parents recorded students saying prayers and sent them to Folio. So, the school shared those on their Facebook page.

“We have received numerous positive comments from the post,” she said. “We approached this challenge like we do all things at our school – as a family.”

Catholic schools have been operating for years in virtual classrooms once one-to-one technology was in place. Therefore, if the school was out for snow days or other reasons, classes could continue online, said Colleen Hoyer, principal of Catholic Central High School, in Charleston. So, when schools were closed for health reasons, “with a little tweaking we were ready.”

“All teachers are posting assignments in RenWeb each morning,” she said so both students and parents know expectations. Many teachers are using online textbooks, Google Classroom for assignment distribution, submission, and quizzes/ tests; “live” classes through Google Hangouts/Meet; and some are creating videos to share with students as a means of instruction.

“It’s remarkable to me what (our teachers) were able to do with such little turnaround time. The students have jumped right in, too. The positive attitude in our community, despite the turbulent times, has really been encouraging,” Hoyer added.

Kindergartener Gabriella Narrish loves her virtual classroom so she can see her Our Lady of Peace School (Marshall County) teachers and classmates.

Even the youngest of students are adapted well, said Mary Grace Peck, principal of St. Francis de Sales Grade School, in Beckley.

“Our preschool and kindergarten students were given packets, the teachers made videos of the daily “carpet” rituals they love doing, and connect by calls and Facetime with students and parents to check-in on everyone,” Peck said.

Grades 1-5 in her school are using a variety of platforms including lessons on iPads using Nearpod, IXL, and Freckle education programs. Middle School students engage in live lessons with their teachers through Zoom app, have virtual labs for Science, and are creating Flipgrid videos to demonstrate learning for Language Arts, Gym, and History.

Parents across the state are sharing how impressed they are with their individual Catholic schools. They are of course amazed how well technology has been implemented, but they are moreover proud of the character that is being revealed by both teachers and students during this challenging time.

“Our school and teachers have been wonderful through all of this,” said Jenny Narrish of Marshall County, her daughter Gabriella is a kindergartener at Our Lady of Peace School. “Gabby is still learning the same as if she was in the classroom. I love how they are coming up with ways to still pull us all together. I am extremely happy and very thankful with everything they are doing to help us.”

Steve and Michelle Petitto, of Clarksburg, have two children at Notre Dame High School – Ashleigh, a senior, and Trey, a sophomore. Knowing their daughter’s senior year would be scarred by this unforeseen circumstance, they were preparing to deal with some tough emotions and responses from Ashleigh and her peers. However, they are seeing them rise above the odds.

Michelle Petitto said the seniors were to be on their senior trip to Disney World this week, but when it had to be cancelled the students didn’t feel sorry for themselves, they took the Christian life lessons they’ve learned in Catholic school and turned their loss into a gain for others. “This group of amazing, soon to be young adults took it upon themselves and asked permission from the NDHS faculty to do service projects to spread faith and positivity instead of routine school work this week,” she said. “Each day they chose a project – cards for hospital patients, short videos of their day to brighten the spirits of nursing home residents, cards for the elderly, etc. In turn, NDHS has been recognizing our senior class daily by posting their senior pictures on Facebook and asking everyone to add comments of positivity and encouragement.

“All of this has been amazing for us as parents to watch,” she said. “Our children have not missed a beat. They have been up early every day and ready to complete their tasks that are assigned. As a family, we have especially felt the love and concern from our principal, Julie Frosch, school counselors and the rest of the NDHS staff. At some point or another, they have all checked in with us to see how we are doing mentally and spiritually. Letting us know that they are all there for us anytime.”

Deschaine said she realizes that the bar has been raised and she is certain her schools will continue to excel and deliver.

“As I say over and over, our Catholic schools are more than academics,” she said. “We prepare our students to be active leaders in school, church, and community,” she said. “We nurture attitude, set expectations high for student and teacher effort, and reinforce Christ as our guide for our actions. The bottom line is I believe in our principals and teachers. I know our students are receiving the best education academically and spiritually from a Catholic school team that truly loves them. There is nothing more reassuring than that.”