The pandemic and protocols that came with it brought about unexpected frustrations as well as unity and renewed faith for graduates of diocesan high schools and colleges, and the spring of 2021 saw the second graduating class since COVID-19 began upending the typical educational and catechetical experience for students as well as teachers and administrators.
Adilynn Girardot just wrapped her sophomore year at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne. Fortunately, in-person schooling was available the whole academic year. But she served on the school’s student activities council, so event planning brought unique challenges and opportunities.
“COVID was hard,” she told Today’s Catholic. “I’m the most extroverted person you’ll ever meet,” so the temporary shutdowns and social distancing requirements were trying for her.
Campus events were also canceled — another downside. And the time and energy required to wipe down desks, cut class sizes or move classes into larger places all came at a cost.
Girardot relayed some of the internal struggles she and other students, including the 2020 and 2021 grads, shared. For Girardot, the strength of one’s faith appeared to be the biggest factor in determining how a person adapted to the rules put in place.
Girardot reflected and prayed on Psalm 22, for she, too, had initially asked, “Why is God doing this? Why has He left us?”
She now has no doubt God is here, strengthening His children, even if they don’t realize it in the moment. For instance, the USF graduating Class of 2020 members didn’t get to walk and receive their diplomas last year, but this year those grads joined in the 2021 ceremony. They were recognized and honored together during a baccalaureate Mass and commencement ceremony May 1, as was appropriate given both classes faced many similar challenges.
USF’s head of campus ministry, Justin Aquila, summed up the year as “[striking] a balance that allowed students to engage inside and outside the classroom in creative ways, while keeping faculty, staff and students as healthy as possible.” He witnessed greater student engagement in activities, despite logistical limitations of capacity, as well as more students in need of pastoral care and counseling for heightened anxiety, depression, loneliness and other issues.
From Mishawaka, Marian High School principal Mark B. Kirzeder shared the “profound impact” of the pandemic on his students, staff and faculty; particularly how it “helped us to more fully achieve our mission as a school community,” he said.
“I have been witness to amazing acts of sacrifice, as our students have made sacrifices for the good of others as they have given up proms, commencement ceremonies, socializing, etc.,” he told Today’s Catholic.
At nearby Saint Joseph High School in South Bend, assistant to the office of student life, Mary Kay Davidson, plainly said that COVID “just stretched us so thin that it is hard to keep our mission and end goals in mind when we’re scrambling just to keep our community safe every day.”
In Fort Wayne, Bishop Dwenger High School English teacher Stephanie Kromer similarly mentioned the “changing instructions and protocols” that kept people guessing what information was valid and what wasn’t.
Dwenger’s mission includes four pillars, including an active support for life, which suffered when the March for Life trip to Washington, D.C., was canceled, Kromer said.
“In addition, our school Masses have been completely different and less frequent, which I miss, especially since it provides an important spiritual connection that is a nice break from the classroom,” she said.
“The pandemic’s effect on education has been extremely profound, making it hard to put into words,” Kromer added, noting more students suffering with anxiety and depression.
The diocese’s Catholic educators expressed hope that the next school year will bring a more predictable structure and greater unity than even before the pandemic. Their hopes, they said, were grounded in trusting God’s will, knowing that sudden changes can come at any time.
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