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Young Wake Forest students adjust to remote learning

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WAKE FOREST — While many schools have not started remote teaching yet, St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School has dived in feet first.

It started online teaching last week with students in kindergarten through eighth grades. Students have Zoom meetings with their classmates and teachers as well as work outside of that.

“We’ve had a lot of good leadership,” said Brian Mannette, a middle school science teacher. “The leadership came down from the Diocese (of Raleigh) early on. Our leadership gave us three days worth of training to get ready.”

The school also provided technology to students who needed it. In the first week, St. Catherine of Siena was seeing 100% attendance in the middle school. Most schools that are trying remote learning reviews are seeing numbers of less than 50%.

“I stress to the kids the importance of treating this like real school,” said Jennifer James, a first-\ grade teacher. “I stress that the same rules and standards apply (as when we’re in class). I keep the structures and routines the same.”

The school also held a Zoom meeting with parents before classes started to communicate the importance of attendance and activities outside of class.

“I ask they get dressed like they’re going to school. The first day, some kids were still in bed,” said Cathy Schwarz, an advanced math teacher. “I made the expectations clear from the beginning. They need to make a space to work. They need to make sure it’s in a quiet area.”

St. Catherine of Siena also focuses on keeping to school-wide routines. It normally starts the school day with the Pledge of Allegiance and prayers over the intercom. Now, Principal Carl Bilotta takes to Facebook Live.

“In an uncertain time, it helps to have those structures in place, to have some things be the same,” said Kristine Fiala, a fourth grade teacher.

The teachers are doing all they can to make the transition an easy one, she added.

Most teachers are hosting one-hour Zoom meetings with around 30 minutes of direct instruction and 30 minutes of classwork. They are also trying to keep lessons fun and engaging while keeping parents in the loop.

“I’ve been sending my lesson plans to parents to detail what needs to be done,” said Kathy Sutphen, a kindergarten teacher.

Sutphen has been pleasantly surprised by her students. When they start her class, most of them cannot even turn on a computer.

“At the beginning, they may know how to use an iPad or smartphone, but rarely do they know how to use a computer,” she said. “I’ve been shocked by how well the kids are doing. For kindergarten, I thought, ‘How do we even do this?’ But they’ve taken to it really well.”

James was also pleasantly surprised by how quickly her first graders adjusted.

“I had a student that couldn’t see the video. She’s at home with her grandma and I asked if grandma could help. She couldn’t,” James said. “So another student started asking questions. She was on a mobile phone, so the student told her what buttons to press, and there she was back with us.”

Technology has been a double-edged sword, though. Several teachers have had to limit features or apply new rules, according to Mannette.

“One problem I had was a kid upside down. I had to come up with a rule that their visuals and audio can’t be distracting,” he said.

Fiala added, “I closed the chat feature because they were having chats during the meeting. We’re learning as we go, too.”

Several teachers have had to learn to adjust their teaching to fit remote learning, especially classes that require supplies students do not have access to at home, according to art teacher Marie Caloggero.

“It’s been a good transition, but there’s a lot of supplies they might not have at home like oil paints. That’s okay,” Caloggero said. “I’ve bypassed those and had the kids focus on drawing because in my classroom we do a lot of painting.”

She also gave kids a special assignment to work with origami and has sent them videos about artists and drawing techniques.

“I try to keep my assignments as fun as possible,” Caloggero said. “In these times, we try to keep as much normal as possible. Art is a great time to release stress.”

Other teachers are also trying to keep assignments as fun as possible. Physical education teacher Kelleigh Russo has assigned an activity log for students and sent home dance videos for them to try with their parents. Several kids have taught their parents how to moonwalk.

“We just finished a section of rocks and minerals,” said James. “I had them go out in their yards and find rocks. Then we talked about what type of rocks they were. They would’ve done it for hours.

“I wish we could do it together, but doing it with their parents can be valuable as well.”

Fiala held show and tell with her fourth graders, who got to show off skills they could not at school, such as playing the piano.

“We learned more about one another through show and tell,” Fiala said. “Maybe today was an emotional day because of that, but after closing prayer, I shut off (the meeting) and cried. I miss my kids.”

James agreed, adding, “We love our students, and we miss them. This isn’t a vacation. We’d give anything to be back with them in the classroom. It’s hard to think we might be done with this year.”

St. Catherine of Siena’s staff also wants to reassure parents who may be anxious about trying to home school their children.

“Take a breath and realize everybody is going through this. They’re all going back to school in the same boat,” James said. “It’s okay. They’ll learn what they need to learn.”

Mannette recommends parents help kids find a quiet, dedicated space to do their work as well as help them stay organized and stay on schedule. While the first few weeks will be difficult, it will become easier.

The staff also want other teachers to know they can reach out for help.

“They can lean on us if they need help. We’re all in this together,” Sutphen said. “We’re still having (professional learning community) meetings. We’re still having lunch together.

“If someone at (another school) needs our help, we’ll help.”

Schwarz added, “This isn’t a job for us. This is a service to our community and our kids.”