Our Lady of the Lake School parent and staff member Sarah McGuire noted the importance of offering extra recess time for students: “Outside play has allowed the kids to be kids, and works wonders on overall morale in the classroom.” (Facebook photo, Our Lady of the Lakes Facebook page)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

Editor’s note: Is there a Catholic school teacher, staff member, priest or someone else in your parish community you’d like to recognize for his or her work during the pandemic? Send the name, position, parish and why the person is deserving of recognition to , and we’ll print it in a future issue.

It has been almost 12 months since virtual learning was introduced in Catholic schools across the Diocese of Superior in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This has been an exceptionally difficult and stressful time, but through God’s grace and peace, we’re making it through,” Diocese of Superior Superintendent Peggy Schoenfuss commented.

“Our schools – teachers, principals, support staff and parents – have been working tirelessly to provide a solid academic program since March 2020,” she added.

Acknowledging and affirming that teaching students in person is “the best way to teach the whole child – body, mind and spirit,” Schoenfuss noted that virtual instruction has allowed for students to access academic learning but “not truly learn the full scope of what they need to.”

“We cannot truly learn any subject without interaction of knowledge, sharing of the emotional responses, and the physical nature of carrying out a task,” she said.

Schoenfuss gives high praise to the teachers in the 14 schools she oversees for stepping up to the challenge of mixing in-person and virtual learning, as has been the case for the entirety of the 2020-21 academic year so far.

During the late winter and spring terms of 2020, Schoenfuss was in regular communication with principals who were navigating the uncharted waters of home learning. Parents had been asked, on very short notice, to jump in and collaborate with teachers. There was a learning curve for everyone, especially students.

After a summer of planning and preparations, Schoenfuss recognizes the ongoing efforts to learn new things, to be innovative and to continue engaging all students.

“If it weren’t for them,” Schoenfuss said, referring to the Catholic school teachers, “our students would not have been able to continue such a great Catholic education.”

Schoenfuss said schools are currently in discussions on how the pandemic has impacted them – spiritually, financially and academically.

“We plan to continue to evaluate data and take steps to move forward with our new situation based on these impacts,” she concluded.

Of special note, Schoenfuss shared how students at Our Lady of the Lake School in Ashland were offered the option of virtual or in-person learning. Other schools have offered the same option, which has required additional effort by teachers to educate and communicate with students simultaneously in person and via distance learning platforms.

Sarah McGuire, who serves as social media coordinator and preschool aide at Our Lady of the Lake, said, “Our staff has been outstanding! Teachers have been expected to go above and beyond this year and have risen to the occasion.”

Our Lady of the Lake Principal Betty Swiston commented that their staff had been training during the 2019-20 year on Google Suite, committing nearly all their in-service time to that. When learning moved online in March 2020, teachers were able to use Google classroom and continue their training in preparation for fall 2020.

With a handful of virtual learning students in each class, “teachers have worked through many challenges,” Swiston affirmed.

McGuire noted that learning these new ways to teach and offering the learning format options, teachers have had their workload tripled.

“Teachers are trying to teach students in the classroom, while helping virtual students and parents with the same lessons,” she added. Long hours are needed for organizing and planning, but “they still have the ability to keep their students happy and learning.”

As a parent of fourth- and sixth-grade students, McGuire expressed how grateful she has been for the supportive school staff. Her children have been attending in-person but needed to switch to the online format while their mom quarantined because of exposure with the preschool class.

“Both kids had constant contact with their teachers and knew exactly what was expected of them and how to do it,” McGuire said.

Another fourth-grade parent, Elizabeth Macky, shared her experience from the period her daughter did home learning while quarantining.

“The teachers were our cheerleaders, always understanding,” Mackey said. “The thing I value most was the time the teachers took just to check in with the students, having conversations and chatting about how everything was going and commending them on their ability to adapt. Those few minutes of just hanging out with the class and their teacher have such a calm sense of normalcy.”

Schoenfuss made mention of one particular OLL teacher who has done an “outstanding job” – Lynn Furyk-Levings, who started four years ago as a part-time teacher at the school.

Swiston described her as an excellent communicator, sharing her love of reading and writing with her classes as well as integrating teaching skills and technology to assist students’ progress in learning during the pandemic.

“Her positive and caring attitude to all has greatly helped (to create) a positive climate at OLL School,” she added.

One of McGuire’s children is in Levings-Fruyk’s class, and she considers the teacher’s efforts to be “phenomenal,” doing “an amazing job” juggling the needs of students in both learning formats.

Having spent the first few weeks of the fall term teaching her fourth-graders to properly use Google Classroom when OLL switched to all virtual for a short period, Levings-Fruyk’s students knew how to communicate with their teachers, find assignments and send in their work.

“These skills are invaluable with getting classroom work finished, and also helped build each student’s confidence,” McGuire said, adding, “She has the patience of a saint when it comes to keeping students on task.”
Her communication with parents is frequent and consistent, practical while at the same time sharing what the students are learning about and what they have been most excited about in class.

“She, along with the other teachers, have given so much to making this crazy school year work,” McGuire stated. “The focus has been on making sure the children are safe, happy and thriving. This comes before anything else. The long hours, lost weekends and stressful days filled with extra cleaning have taken their toll on all staff. By the grace of God, we’ll make it to the other side, stronger than before.”