Diocesan Schools Fire Up E-Learning Practices Amid Coronavirus Closures
By Lynne Conner, Observer Correspondent
March 19, 2020
ROCKFORD—Just hours before Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker closed all Illinois public and private schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bishop David Malloy and the Rockford Diocese Education Office released a statement closing Catholic elementary and high schools through March 30. 
 
For diocesan schools this closure automatically put into place an e-learning and other distance learning contingency plans. In addition to having complete lessons online, schools also have packets for parents to pick up at school.
 
At Holy Family School and Boylan Central Catholic High School in Rockford, students were advised to bring home all necessary learning materials — books, binders and notebooks — on March 13 at the end of school in preparation for e-learning during the week of March 16-20. 
 
Holy Family parents were notified by principal Corine Gendron that the school would be open on March 16 during specific times so parents could pick up any books or materials their children would need for e-learning. 
 
Gendron provided parents with an online form to complete so specific books and binders could be requested from students’ lockers. 
 
School staff collected items from student lockers and organized them on tables to streamline the pick-up process. Neither parents nor students were able to access classrooms, hallways or lockers. 
 
Holy Family school teachers began posting online assignments March 16 with various due dates outlined. Teachers were also available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day of the week via email to answer students’ questions.
 
Amy Ott, president of Boylan Central Catholic High School, emailed a letter to parents on  March 13 outlining the school’s response to the COVID-19 situation. 
 
In the letter, she said only students needing books from their lockers would be able to access the school March 16 during set times. 
 
March 16 and 17 would function as institute days for teachers while e-learning assignments would be posted  March 18 through March 20. 
 
Both Holy Family and Boylan CCHS will be on spring break during the week of March 22-29 and assignments will be posted at that time. 
 
On March 30,  e-learning begins again at both schools. 
 
Similar activities rolled out at all the diocesan schools this week.
 
Learning can go on
 
“Distance learning can be very effective it it’s set up well,” said Vito DeFrisco, assistant superintendent of schools for the diocese. He says the many online resources available to teachers allow them to be “very creative in designing lesson plans.”
 
The education office has three key goals for parents to keep in mind during alternative and e-learning days. They are: 
 
– To minimize the disruption to academic progress caused with emergency school closures by making those out-of-school days as educationally productive and engaging as possible. 
 
– To allow students an opportunity to practice the kind of online learning that is increasingly part of both college study and workplace training. 
 
– To maximize the use of technology as a tool for independent study. 
 
DeFrisco says the diocese realizes not everyone has the same access to the internet. During previous snow days, the most frequent use for distance learning, he has “asked principals to provide packets so students can do the work and return them for ... grading.”
 
That option is available at all the diocesan schools, not just Holy Family and Boylan.
 
But one key element of distance learning in the diocese is that it will be graded.
 
The Illinois State Board of Education has said in this unusual circumstance, that online and distance projects may not be graded.
 
“We’re going to grade ours. We want this to be more than busy work,” DeFrisco adds.
 
He said Elizabeth Heitkamp, also an assistant superintendent for diocesan schools, has found a number of online resources for teachers to help them plan online lessons.
 
Self-quarantines required after trips
 
A letter from the Catholic Education Office emailed to parents asked anyone who planned to travel outside the continental U.S. during spring breaks to tell their school administrators. 
 
On the first day of their return home, families were to “place yourself on a 14-day self-quarantine ... .  This is important because you will not be allowed to return to school until that period of time has elapsed.”
 
The Education Office also acknowledged that, as “…this is an ever-evolving situation, there may be more information and directives that will be communicated to you through School Speak (online Catholic school forum), parishes, social media, and the diocesan website ... .” 
 
They also asked for prayers for all affected by this situation.
 
— Sharon Boehlefeld contributed to this story