Digital days have been part of the school since 2016
Students at Peninsula Catholic High School, Newport News, may be miles apart, but they learn together in their classrooms, and that scenario is expected to continue long after COVID is no longer a health risk.
In an effort to make Catholic education available to more families, the school has adopted a permanent virtual learning program.
When Catholic schools closed to in-person students in March 2020 due to COVID, the transition to virtual learning at PCHS went “smoothly” because the school already had a system in place, said Janine Franklin, principal.
Since 2016, teachers and pupils have had digital learning days six times a year as practice runs for inclement weather. As a result, the school already had the equipment, technology and familiarity with attending classes virtually. Teachers were Google certified and students were adept with their Chromebooks, which they use daily in classes.
“It was like someone had a crystal ball at Peninsula Catholic and saw this coming,” said Edward McGinley, whose daughters, Lily and Olivia, continue to attend PCHS virtually. “It was amazing.”
Franklin said this year has proven that virtual learning at PCHS can be a success, so the school is adopting the permanent option. Virtual students can enroll full-time or part-time, and they can change educational options between quarters in October, March or January.
Using Zoom and conference cameras, students and teachers can see each other in the classroom and at home, Franklin said. Technology allows virtual students to participate in class discussions and collaborate in small groups or with partners who are online or in school.
Franklin said the school is “investing in infrastructure to make the concurrent educational experience as top notch as it can be.” Next year teachers will have new computers so they will have “even more power behind them.”
Recognizing that lack of inschool socialization can be difficult for students, Franklin said PCHS offers opportunities throughout the day for all students to connect. Students virtually and physically attend homeroom where they can chat with friends. Many classes have a few minutes of “warm up” in which students talk about a particular topic of the day, not necessarily an academic one.
All learners may participate in social events and extracurricular activities, and full-time virtual and in-person students also may participate in athletics.
“I think staying part of their high school and keeping in contact with their friends is very, very important to them,” Franklin said.
Jaden Moore and Lily McGinley, both learning virtually, said that being involved in theater after school has helped them feel part of the school community.
PCHS, which educates students from eighth through 12th grades, has 271 students, 67 of whom are learning from home. Class sizes are small and have an average of one teacher to 11 students.
Franklin said the school’s “comfortable capacity” is about 350 students, and she expects interest will grow and applications will increase due to the two educational options. To maintain small class size, Franklin predicts the school may need to hire more teachers to start in the fall.
Lily McGinley is glad the school will continue to have small classes because it allows teachers to give “one-on-one” tutoring sessions, virtually and in-person, when needed. Franklin said teachers also have office hours – time they set aside to be available to help students “in a more open format.”
The idea for concurrent education at PCHS is not new. Franklin said the school was already “heading in this direction,” but COVID “sped up the process.”
Mike Pilola, chair of English Department, said there’s “no substitute” for having students physically in front of a teacher,” but virtual learning can be “successful.”
Reasons to opt for permanent virtual learning run the gamut. For example, it can be ideal for students suffering a chronic illness or who find learning at school distractive, Franklin said. Although the school has implemented measures to prevent COVID, some students this year continue to learn online as an extra precaution.
Faculty have met challenges
Because virtual students are learning in the same classroom as in-person students, Christopher Moore, Jaden’s father, said virtual learning at PCHS is just as challenging as being at the school. Likewise, Edward McGinley is pleased that his daughters have the same “high-quality college preparatory coursework” and continue to have relationships with “the top-tier teachers and counselors.”
In addition to offering a “solid academic curriculum,” the school’s faith component continues as virtual students attend weekly school Masses online and attend retreats online or in person.
Franklin said teaching concurrently “has been harder for teachers” and “has taken a lot of preparation,” but it is “now becoming more normal and natural for them.”
Melanie Weser, economics, business and computer science teacher, said having both types of learners in the classroom is “a different kind of difficult” in teaching.
Working together, faculty have overcome technical glitches, mastered multiple online educational platforms and shared teaching ideas that engage online and in-person students. Franklin said frequent professional development for teachers has also been vital to the program’s success.
“There’s a lot that our teachers have had to figure out, and I am proud of everything that they’ve done to make it work,” Franklin said. “It’s one thing to teach them virtually a few times a year; it’s another thing to teach them (virtually) every day.” Pilola said teaching virtually and in-person concurrently requires teachers “to think in a different way” and requires “a little extra planning.” They have to “re-imagine” some of their lessons and instructional techniques, often with trial and error, to engage both in-person and at-home students. Franklin said teachers are using educational interactive apps for things like games, videos and slide presentations.
“I think that having the two different types of learners happening at the same time is making me become a better teacher. It’s giving me a reason to seek out new methods and try new things in the classroom,” Weser said. “It’s an exciting time to be teacher.”