Continuing to sew the ties that bind: Parishes and schools stay the course during the coronavirus pandemic

The morning prayer at Saint Peter the Apostle Catholic School sounds the same. Still, there is something fundamentally different about it now. These days the prayer is conducted via the Microsoft Teams computer program and streamed to hundreds of students currently stationed in their homes due to the coronavirus pandemic. “We are going to continue our morning prayers,” said Saint Peter’s principal Wynter Kelly of the Savannah school’s new normal. “Our spiritual foundation is the most important part of a Catholic school. We can’t be physically together but we can still be together.”

Sunday Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church, Valdosta took place on schedule last week. The only change was that there were no parishioners within the chapel. They were bearing witness, however, just via the Facebook Live feature on their computers and cellphones. According to Father Jason Adams, that’s one way to keep a sense of normalcy in a not-so-normal time. “As a priest we are meant to be with our flock, and because we are separated doesn’t mean we can’t be,” said Adams, who added that the sanctuary remains open for private prayer.

Parishioners and Catholic school teachers, students, and in some cases their parents, are indeed gathering together, but these days they do so before computer screens and by way of apps like Google Classroom, Zoom and social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram. As of Tuesday, March 24, the city of Savannah was officially placed under a shelter at home declaration, thus closing all “non-essential” businesses within city limits. The ways churches and schools, which have been closed to mass gatherings for over two weeks to avoid potential spreading of the virus, have to conduct their services will be altered and that might not be so bad.

All around the diocese, changes are being made and a new way of life is quickly becoming what’s best for Catholics under these unfortunate and unprecedented time. The ideas and methods that have taken shape will change how people worship and learn in the future.

At St. Francis Xavier Catholic School, Brunswick there are a variety of methods being used to keep students engaged, according to the school’s principal Dr. Terry Mermann. “Teachers are using a variety of platforms to continue to instruct students, Mermann, who is among 12 men preparing to be ordained as deacons in late May. “They are using instructional tools such as Google Classroom and a host of websites provided by companies such as Sadlier and Teacher-Pay-Teacher.”

Mermann also spoke of online programs like MobyMax, Read Theory and the Khan Academy that are being utilized. “Teachers are also checking in with students and parents daily to make sure students are staying on track with their studies, but also to maintain the relationships they have with their students,” said Mermann.

Those relationships, like the ones between the administration, teachers, students, and parents at St. Mary on the Hill Catholic School, Augusta, have been fortified via everything from using the Padlet app to check up on students to the Remind app to text messages to parents. St. Mary on the Hill principal Laura Webster is proud of how her staff has adjusted to the new way of doing things. “It’s been fantastic because of the way every one of my colleagues has jumped in and figured it out,” said Webster by phone one afternoon. “It is a constant struggle, but we are trying to work with each family individually to do whatever it takes.”

Whatever it takes sometimes means sending personal emails to each student telling them what they should be doing next and keeping up on, “The 5th-grade teachers send out those emails asking if they have any questions, and asking what they did this week,” said Ellen Hoffman, a 5th-grade teacher at St. Mary’s. “That’s so we can quickly respond to little problems or questions,” said Kortlyn Hoyt, a 7th and 8th-grade teacher at the school.

“Thanks to Google Classroom I could share my experience and give direction on how to observe the planet themselves,” said 4th grade teacher Emily Skimore who was recently teaching her class about the solar system. “Learning never stops.”

At Saint Peter the Apostle, Savannah, whose classrooms went online on Thursday, March 19, upcoming events like Virtual Spirit Week and a sidewalk chalk challenge keeps their community engaged. “The kids need us,” said Kelly who is in her first year as principal. “A lot of our kids come to school and this is their second home. We have an obligation to serve them and it has been truly remarkable how everyone has come together.”

Theology on Tap, a virtual discussion forum moderated by Father Jason Adams, Wednesday nights on the St. John the Evangelist Facebook page, has become quite popular amongst the congregation. “I have seen positive responses,” said Adams who also mentioned the church is planning to sell BBQ plates for lunch after virtual Mass Sunday afternoon. The plates can be purchased online and picked up -monitoring the Center for Disease Control’s recommended six foot distance- via a makeshift drive-thru. “We are just trying to find ways to keep parishioners engaged during the week.”

The Facebook traffic for the 10 am daily Mass and Saturday night Mass at St. Juliana’s Catholic Church, Fort Valley, has grown according to a recent report. The nightly 7 pm Rosary is still offered in Spanish and the 5 pm Saturday Mass still takes place. Now it just happens to come via the church’s popular YouTube page. Father Carlos Pinzon recently conducted a 24-hour Adoration where families of 10 or less filled each hour.

At St. Patrick Church, Kathleen, daily 10 am Mass and the weekly Saturday night Mass continues on Facebook Live. The church’s Religious Education page is also regularly updated to keep parishioners informed of the church’s every move.

No longer able to conduct staff meetings from the comfort of their school, the teachers and administrators at St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School, Columbus, hold staff meetings via Zoom now.

Hebrews 6:11 reads “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized.” What many hope for is to get back the church and school situations they once had, but in order for that to happen they must continue what is being done now. One day at a time.

“As this way of life evolves and we get better at it, we’re making sure we don’t just approach the academic piece but the spiritual and community pieces as well,” said Kelly.

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