School Closure Extended; Digital Learning Thrives


By Tony DeGol

A good news/bad news situation for Catholic schools in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

First, the bad news: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has directed that schools remain closed until at least April 6 to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The good news, however, is that Catholic education in Altoona-Johnstown continues, and leaders believe at this point, the academic year will affected very little, if at all.

Since schools closed on March 16, Catholic schools in the diocese began their digital learning platform, which allows teachers to educate students virtually.

News that the governor extended the closure to April 6 is not a worry for Diocesan Education Director Jo-Ann Semko.

“Basically, we’re going to continue digitally,” she said. “Our teachers are getting better and better at this every day.”

Every day of digital learning counts toward overall educational requirements, so Semko is optimistic that the school year can still end on time.

“There should be very little adjustment to our end of the year schedule,” she noted.

Semko said she is receiving positive comments from parents, and she is even hearing from public school parents who want to be included since their districts are not offering digital learning.

“They’re just looking to keep their kids from regressing,” she explained.

At Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, students are experiencing Theology classes via Zoom and English discussions on Google Stream. Chemistry students have videoed their own lab experiments at home, and Math teachers are using applications such as Educreations to continue teaching difficult Calculus formulas. 

“As a college preparatory school, it is important to offer different instructional options for our students so that there is continuity in learning,” said SJCA Head of School Jennifer Mallett. “Our administration and faculty have collaborated to learn about ZOOM meetings for classes and other instructional strategies platforms to enhance and enrich our teaching methods during this health crisis.  We want our students to still feel connected to our school community.” 

SJCA Chemistry teacher Tammy Badger has opted to incorporate a mixture of applications to best teach her students.

“I have flipped the classroom, and I am using Educreations to teach content and assign practice,” she commented.  “I am using Zoom to host Q&A sessions once or twice a week.  The Socrative platform will be used for quickly assessing student understanding. I will also supplement with on-line simulations, labs, and videos when necessary. I think this experience, at the end of the year, will help prepare them for college even more. Keeping track of virtual assignments, choosing to attend Q/A session and listening to lectures – this is college.” 

The virtual model is also bringing all Catholic schools in the diocese together. Each day at 3:00 p.m., families, teachers, and administrators are invited to join in a streaming of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Teachers are evening posting prayer requests.

“It’s a way of keeping us joined in community as we get through this together,” Semko stated.

[Photo: A Zoom session with third graders at Our Lady of Victory Catholic School in State College.]