Faith Matters

Catholic Schools Week: 'We will keep smiling through this time'

Teaching and learning have been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, presenting huge challenges for students and teachers alike. In spite of the difficulties, Catholic schools have been a 'compassionate community where we look out for each other', says principal Bernadette Fitzgerald, who reflects on the theme of this year's Catholic Schools Week - 'communities of resilience and faith'

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a sudden shift to home learning and remote teaching. Catholic Schools Week is celebrating the faith and resilience of teachers and students alike

THE sudden shift to remote teaching and learning - and the organisation of education around kitchen tables and digital devices - occurred overnight.

It forced us to recreate, in an online space, the daily life of our secondary school community here in Saint Joseph's College, Lucan, in Co Dublin. This year has been a Catholic Schools Week like no other.

As with all schools across the island, we have been stretched very far this year.

The summer months were spent renovating, restructuring, planning and re-planning to ensure our building was as safe as it could be for everyone.

In September staff returned to a radically changed and challenging workplace with a commitment and determination to get through this strange time in collaboration with students and colleagues.

It was quite sad to see the fresh faces of first years obscured by masks, our library and canteen converted to classrooms, tours and trips abandoned and assemblies avoided.

A new language evolved among staff and students, to communicate the need to "Keep your distance" or go directly to the 'safety station' if feeling unwell.

An unspoken, yet shared acceptance that 'We are all in this together' was at odds with the practical necessity that each student must take a turn in our 'satellite station' - a live-streaming centre designed to maintain physical distancing by facilitating a small group of students, who are removed from their larger class group, to connect to the main classroom via digital technology.

Not only is learning disrupted since last March but lives are also upended. At times the atmosphere is bleak and dreary and everyone is feeling glum.

The loss of many grandparents, sometimes without an opportunity to say goodbye to their grandchildren, has been the experience of a significant number of our students and it has shattered the intergenerational bonds in families.

Being cut off from friends, enduring severe exam stress and coping with uncertainty about the future is giving rise to a worrying mental health fallout among our students.

While much has changed, the heart of our work has remained the same. With creativity, grit and perseverance we have continued to connect with and support our students through this pandemic - not just academically, but socially, personally and emotionally.

In recent weeks, countless Chrome Books were distributed to students to enable remote engagement with school staff; subject helpdesks are up and running; counselling phone lines are in operation; Google Meets allows the sharing of unmasked smiles between our teachers and students; our student support team and special needs assistants are keeping in touch with students.

Being cut off from friends, enduring severe exam stress and coping with uncertainty about the future is giving rise to a worrying mental health fallout among our students 

Our response to this latest closure has revealed that we are learning to bounce back.

Author and thinker Andrew Zolli describes resilience as "the capacity of a system, enterprise or person to maintain its core purpose or integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances".

We are maintaining mission integrity through collective resilience. From the onset of the pandemic our students, staff and parents have illuminated how we are a compassionate community where everyone looks out for each other.

Students are also aware of the circumstances of those in the local community and are responsive to their needs.

Before Christmas, our students' thoughtful letters and wellbeing cards to residents in a nearby nursing home received heart-warming responses which lifted all of our spirits.

The spiritual needs of our students have been met through liturgical experiences, designed as small group rituals or online services for the whole school.

In November the Religion teachers collaborated with students in finding meaningful and imaginative ways to give expression to their thoughts, memories and prayers for loved ones who have passed away.

Our annual Carol Service and Presentation Day Mass were recreated as remote gatherings of the whole school, with music, prayer and reflection.

For the latter we were joined by Fr Tom Kennedy from Saint Mary's Parish, thus enabling us to remain connected to the parish.

Who knows what the coming months will bring? A prolonged school closure is a dismal time indeed, but we have a choice as to how to go forward.

So much depends on how we look at things. We will keep smiling through this time.

There is so much wisdom to be gained from how others have remained resilient in the face of adversity - the words of Anne Frank spring to mind: "I don't think of all the misery but of all the beauty that still remains."

Within our school community there is much of beauty to be grateful for, such as friendship; empathy; spirituality; love; kindness; solidarity; care; and of course, hope for September.

Bernadette Fitzgerald is principal of Saint Joseph's College, Lucan, in the Archdiocese of Dublin. Saint Joseph's is a vibrant school community of faith and learning for girls, founded by the Presentation Sisters, and is now under the trusteeship of CEIST.

Catholic Schools Week is an annual celebration of of Catholic education and runs this year until Sunday January 31. This year's theme is 'Catholic schools: communities of resilience and faith'.

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