When St. Robert School K4 teacher Gina Flynn bid her students farewell around noon Friday, March 13, she thought she would be seeing them again the following Monday morning.

Gina Flynn, 4K teacher at St. Robert School in Shorewood, visits a student with a homemade sign during her parade of “drive-by smiles.” (Submitted photo)

She was wrong. A message over the school’s PA system later that afternoon called teachers to a conference room, where they were informed that school would not be in session the following week due to the coronavirus.

“Mouths dropped. Minds were racing,” said Flynn, who has been an educator for more than 30 years. “That was not a good day.”

As public and private schools all over the state of Wisconsin have closed their doors indefinitely to slow the spread of COVID-19, teachers have had to adapt quickly to an online model of instruction. But the “distance learning” can take an emotional toll on both teachers and students, whose classroom-fostered personal bond is crucial to the Catholic school philosophy of educating the whole person.

“I just miss them so much,” said Janet Clapper, a 3K teacher at St. Charles Borromeo School in Milwaukee. “We never even got to say goodbye. All of a sudden we’re home, and I can’t even explain this to them.”

“It’s been really hard, and I think we all underestimated the impact that this distance learning has and how much we got into this job for the opportunity to work with and be with children,” said Patrick Landry, president of Notre Dame School of Milwaukee. “You don’t feel that same joy in the distance learning as when you’re physically there. You miss that shot in the arm you get from seeing the lightbulb go off or having that ‘a-ha moment’ and experiencing that in person.”

But the Catholic teachers of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are proving resilient in the face of this crisis. From morning mental health check-ins to “drive-by smiles,” they are finding creative ways to maintain the human connection with their students — from a safe distance.

For Flynn, being physically apart from “her kids” was, frankly, devastating. She couldn’t imagine how she was supposed to be the type of kindergarten teacher she wanted to be over a computer. “I am a hands-on, discovery-based, play-based teacher. That’s how learning happens in my classroom,” she said.

But a long drive with her husband gave her an idea that changed everything. “All of a sudden I just looked at my husband and said, ‘This what we have to do. We have to do drive-by smiles.’” she said. When she got home, she emailed her families to set up a mini-parade past each of their houses. With her husband serving as chauffeur, she visited each student — to their delight.

It was, said Flynn, “a turning point.” All of a sudden, the woman who hated having her picture taken was completely confident making teaching videos for “my little people” and setting up weekly Zoom game times. “When I saw what it meant to them to actually see me, I knew that I had to do it.”

Clapper did the same thing with her class of nine 3K students at St. Charles. Like Flynn’s students, many of Clapper’s kids made signs to put in their window as she passed by and rushed out on their front steps to wave. It was a special moment and memory that she cherishes, and she is trying to keep the momentum going through their distance learning curriculum, setting up reading sessions twice each week via Zoom and making herself available to parents by ClassTag, email and phone.

“I think it’s very important that they don’t think suddenly I went away,” she said. “They were used to seeing me every day. Even for older kids, that connection you have with your teachers is really important. We’re with them a big chunk of the day.”

At Notre Dame School of Milwaukee, where 92 percent of the school’s 539 students live at or below the poverty line, teachers and staff are doing what they can to (figuratively) stand beside their families who are among the hardest hit by the economic implications of this crisis.

The school has been providing meals that include breakfast and lunch for each household member under the age of 18 to 130 families each week at their Mother Caroline campus. During the first week of e-learning, the school distributed more than 150 devices to students, enabling access to the online curriculum. NDSM has also designated staff members to do “wellness checks” with families to assess and meet needs as they arise.

“If there’s a need there, often we can connect one of our donors to that need,” said Landry. The school is now seeing a daily attendance rate of 95 percent, up from 80 percent the first week of e-learning.

For Cristo Rey Jesuit High School students, every day begins with a virtual meeting between groups of 10 to 12 students of the same gender and a staff member. It’s an important way to touch base with one another, foster relationships and maintain the school’s Ignatian philosophy of “cura personalis” — care for the entire person.

“It has been one of the most life-giving pieces,” said Andrew BoddySpargo, dean of performance measurement and innovation at CRJ. “In some instances, it can feel awkward to have that student-teacher meeting outside of school in other contexts, but because of the context in which it’s happening now, I think instead of awkwardness it leads to vulnerability, which leads to trust and connection. That’s something none of us could have anticipated, but it’s been something that, in the midst of difficulties, is a bright spot.”

BoddySpargo also remarked that the simple action of moving the classroom into the living room has created an interesting and unprecedented equal footing upon which teachers — many of whom are young parents — and their students — many of whom are suddenly caregivers for younger siblings — can meet one another.

“I want them to remember that we went through something together, and that the challenge that it posed to our school community drew us closer together, and that they saw new ways that their teachers love them, miss them and value them.”