Having a strong parish and school community has enabled Holy Family School to thrive despite all the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Because a plan for e-learning was already in place for inclement weather, the end of in-person schooling last spring went relatively smoothly. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was swift. Our staff, including the support staff, came together beautifully,” said principal Jennifer Veldman. The school counselor made home visits, and disadvantaged students received technology so they could access virtual learning. There were even food deliveries from the on-site pantry to families affected by job loss. Virtual contests built school unity despite months of separation.
The new school was slated to start on Aug. 13, so there was a virtual back-to-school night Aug. 12. But the Holy Family staff didn’t want to begin welcoming students into the building until every safety measure was in place. Funding provided by the coronavirus relief bill for personal protective equipment was administered by the South Bend Community School Corporation, and state approval was slow in coming, so everyone learned at home for the first two weeks. After that, each family could choose what felt best for them.
Out of 260 students, only 57 opted to learn virtually; by the second quarter, that number was down to 24.
“Families trust us,” explained Veldman. Careful observation of sanitizing, spacing and keeping students in small cohorts have helped limit the incidence of COVID-19 to seven students and four staff members; none seem to have contracted the virus at school.
School nurse Beth Kirk and the St. Joseph County Department of Health made sure every family was informed of each incident. All students are met in the parking lot and their temperatures checked before they even enter the building.
If only one family chose to keep their student at home, their teachers would post daily lessons for them. They also have designated Google Meet “office hours” to offer personal assistance.
For some subjects, at-home learners participate in a classroom livestream; for others, they work individually at their own pace on the material the teacher designates.
It’s extra, energy-draining work for the teachers, who look forward to scheduled breaks like the Christmas holidays. Understanding this, their principal frequently asks: “What do you need? How can I support you?” There is open communication about the challenges as well as the successes.
Each student attends Mass twice a week, once in person and once via livestream. In the principal’s words, “Holy Family has worked diligently to keep our Catholic faith alive during the pandemic.” Pastor Father Glenn Kohrman and associates are still invited into classrooms, and students in prekindergarten through second grade still participate in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd every week.
Teachers have adapted to the new reality in creative ways. For example, instead of having her students sing hymns used in the liturgy, the music teacher has been teaching them motions to the lyrics.
As Veldman sees it, the greatest challenge is closely related to the school’s greatest strength. “We are a family,” she said. “In a normal year, we frequently welcome parent volunteers and other guests into our classrooms, host all-school events to showcase our school, and group our students in ‘houses’ with members from every grade. We’re doing our best, with the help of weekly newsletters and posts on social media, but it isn’t quite the same.”
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