It was the year that COVID-19 came to class. As the 2020-21 school year draws to a close, principals and administrators all over the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are reflecting on an unprecedented school year, when a global pandemic stole the normalcy from daily life and threatened to upend the core values of Catholic education.
On the May 21 episode of Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki’s radio show “Living Our Faith,” the Archbishop and co-host Lydia LoCoco welcomed special guests Dr. Kathleen Cepelka, Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and Bonnie Scholz, NBCT, principal at Burlington Catholic Central High School, to share their thoughts on the challenges faced by Catholic educators this year — and the innovative and faith-filled ways they found to overcome them.
“This deserves a chapter in itself in the history of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” said Archbishop Listecki, referring to the “great, heroic efforts” made by principals, administrators and teachers during the pandemic.
Dr. Cepelka pointed out the schools’ response to the pandemic can best be broken down into three phases. “The first was the emergency phase last March when the world, the country, the state … needed to react instantly, really overnight,” she said.
“We pretty much overnight needed to flip to an online platform in March,” agreed Scholz. “I’m proud of our school and our teachers and technology and staff — but also, a lot of the Catholic high schools are already leaders in the use of technology. We have iPads and Chromebooks and Apple TV, so for us, flipping to an online format was relatively easy.” Scholz also noted that her staff members made themselves available to the school’s 130 students six days per week, including an extra weekend day for catching up and help.
The second phase of the schools’ response, said Dr. Cepelka, came last summer, as planning for the next year came underway and administrators grappled with COVID-19 mitigation protocols for in-person learning.
“Then there was the prep period for the new school year, and I’m proud to say that we opened the 2020-21 school year with 90 percent of our 102 schools offering some form of in-person instruction,” said Dr. Cepelka. She added that no schools ended up suffering “outbreaks that forced major closures. In general, we had an outstanding track record.”
“Students needed to be in class in order to maximize the effects of education,” added the Archbishop.
Now, said Dr. Cepelka, schools are in “the adjustment phase.”
“We’re looking toward next year — I would say pretty much back to normal. God willing, the pandemic will abate enough to allow us to do that,” she said.
LoCoco also highlighted the many efforts on the part of schools to support vulnerable families during the pandemic — even families who were not members of the school community.
“School isn’t just a place where I go, get a book and open it up,” she said. For many families, schools are centers of community, bulwarks of stability and sources of daily meals for their children. “It’s really important for some populations that the schools keep going.”
“Our Catholic schools — you can use the metaphor of beacons, or anchors — they are stable points in these communities,” said Dr. Cepelka. “This was proven in an outstanding fashion during the pandemic.” She said that hundreds of thousands of meals were made available by Catholic schools in the archdiocese to families, regardless of where their child attended school, during the periods when city schools were closed due to health department regulations.
Scholz, whom Cepelka called “an exemplar of what (school leaders) have done to really be frontline workers,” shared details of Catholic Central’s year of pandemic learning, which included a parking lot production of the annual school musical.
“We just have a great team at Catholic Central, and they found a way,” she said, referring to the school’s “overarching promise of doing everything we can, safely, for these kids so they don’t have to miss anything.”
“That requires a lot of creativity and thinking outside the box and doing things a different way, but I’m really proud of my team and other teams throughout the archdiocese who didn’t just cancel, but said, let’s find a way to make it happen.”
To listen to the June 4 episode of “Living Our Faith,” visit https://www.archmil.org/Living-Our-Faith/Current-Radio-Show.htm.