Rylan Parker, 12, is in Sixth grade at St. Michael School in Augusta. Here she participates virtually in Mrs. Hoffman’s class. Photo courtesy of Virginia Parker

While most area schools remain in a state of flux during the coronavirus pandemic, Augusta-based St. Michael School was prepared for the closures that caught many off guard.

Utilizing platforms such as Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube and Google Classroom, the Catholic pre-Kindergarten through Eighth grade school has been connecting students and teachers since the school closed along with others across Maine.

Using technology to provide school virtually is an idea that came to Principal Kevin Cullen five years ago, when he was considering ways to continue lessons during snow days.

“I was at a national convention of Catholic school principals,” he said. “I went to a seminar on doing ‘blizzard packs’ or snow day packs. I was just (thinking) ‘What a great idea,’ because at the beginning of the year, you have no idea how many snow days you’re going to have, how long the school year is going to get extended, the safety of the kids, all of those things.

“So I came back to my staff after that and said ‘This is something that I want all of us to start thinking about now, because some day we’re going to be able to do this.’ I know the Department of Education has kind of frowned upon it, because of the ability to educate all children the same and grant equity to everybody,” Cullen added. “But we’re a little different, because we don’t have all of those same rules, the children that we have — almost all of our kids — have the ability to get technology, or can use technology. That puts us in a much better place, and all of our kids have internet, so that helps a lot.”

Sure enough, by February vacation, he saw what was happening with the virus spreading across other countries, and prepared his staff for the next step.

“This was never in my thought, that we’d have anything like this, not even close” Cullen said. “But then, probably about a month ago, we were on February vacation. I started to see the changes in the (coronavirus) numbers in Europe, expanding to Iran, Italy and Korea. I said ‘This is going to be here really soon.’

“I think it was about a week, week and a half later, it was in Seattle. As soon as we came back from vacation, we had a staff meeting, I said to everyone ‘You need to prepare for this,” he added. “To start thinking, more long term, of what we were going to do if we had to shut down for two or three weeks. Because if we do, we’re going to do online learning. I’m not going to let three weeks go not doing anything with the kids.'”

According to Cullen, each school day is roughly three to four hours long, with a scheduled 15-minute recess and lunch break. The day starts with Cullen addressing all students via Facebook Live for the Pledge of Allegiance, a scripture reading, a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and a quick joke before the students break off for classes with their respective teachers. Cullen also uses Zoom to have daily meetings with his teachers.

To aid in the lessons, parents were given three weeks worth of “blizzard bags,” or lesson plans. All Fifth through Eighth grade students at the school have a Chrome laptop computer, while lower grade students use home computers.

HOME SCHOOLING

Noah Parker, 11, communicates with Mrs. Boucher through his Chromebook as part of her Fifth grade class at St. Michael School in Augusta. Photo courtesy of Virginia Parker

That’s come in handy for Virginia Parker, who has four of her five children attend St. Michael: Joelle (Kindergarten), Jonah (Third grade), Noah (Fifth grade) and Rylan (Sixth grade).

“My house (during class time), no joke, has been silent as a mouse,” Parker said. “I almost went ‘What just happened?’ Even my four-year old, who I thought would be running out of everyone’s video conferences, he sits down and watches PBS shows.”

Parker said she appreciates how the program gives some form of structure each day.

“It’s just been smooth sailing,” Parker said. “And I just feel bad for all the other schools that haven’t gotten something in place. I’m sure there are other students who are more difficult learners in the sense of sitting still (during class), especially in their own home. But at least it’s an attempt to wrangle them into a schedule, and not just free-for-all with video games.”

Parker is far from the only parent praising the program.

“I’m amazed by it,” said Sarah Minzy, whose children, Thomas (Fifth grade) and Parker (Sixth grade), attend the school.

“I’m amazed and surprised how well it’s working, quite honestly. I think it’s providing continued structure to kids at time that’s very uneasy,” she said. “I think for the kids involved with this St. Mike’s process, everything is so unsettled everywhere. And yet for my two kids, they are able to see and stay in contact with not just the leaders of the school, but also the teachers and their classmates and that’s amazing to me.”

Anna Boucher — whose son Kenny is a Fifth grader at St. Mike’s — said she appreciates the social interaction her son is able to have with his friends.

“He is not one that loves school, he loves the whole social aspect of it,” Boucher said. “But every morning at 8:30 (a.m.), he’s so excited to get on his computer and he’s so excited to see his friends. The schoolwork that they’re covering he’s not having any issues with. I think if I were to be homeschooling him myself, we would be kind of butting heads. But I’m so thankful for (the online classes), it’s been really wonderful.”

Jonah Parker, 9, is in Mrs. McGuire’s Third grade class at St. Michael School in Augusta. Photo courtesy of Virginia Parker

Each of the social platforms the school uses records the class, giving families who are not available during live school time the chance to view the video at any point of the day.

Cullen said the only issue the school has had in its week of use is the overlap of time teachers have used for Kindergarten through Fourth grade that don’t have laptops.

“That’s the only negative comment I’ve heard from parents,” Cullen said. “Sometimes there’s two lessons going on at the same time and they only have one iPad shared between two kids, so both kids can’t be live.

“It’s one of the things I’m going to talk to the teachers about, is try to work with each other so that you’re not (all) live at the same time,” he added. “Try to find different 15-minute bursts where you’re going to be live, so that when you’re done, they can pass the tablet over to their sibling and then they can go live with their own teacher, so we’re not overlapping as much.”

As of Monday, Cullen said the online classes will continue until at least April 27.

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