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Switching to distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic has been easier for some schools than others.
Serra Catholic High School, located in McKeesport’s Haler Heights neighborhood, is a “1:1” school. Since 2013, it has provided a laptop for each of its nearly 300 students, said Robert Childs, associate principal.
Serra uses Google Chromebook laptops and does a yearly survey to make sure all families can connect to the Internet at home, Childs said. The school was already using online, flexible instruction during snow days — what students and teachers refer to as “Chrome from Home” days.
The school, Childs said, “is in a fortunate place” when it comes to online learning.
When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced March 13 that all schools would be shut down for 10 business days, Childs said Serra Catholic suspected the suspension of classes would wind up being longer, so the school prepared to make changes to its schedule.
Shortly before Easter break, Serra High determined that teachers needed more time for planning and that some students were having trouble adapting to full-time, online-only learning, he said.
Some students felt like they were being “bombarded” with seven different homework assignments every day, due the following day, Childs said.
A “block schedule” was implemented, Childs said. Forty-minute classes were stretched to one hour, every other day, and the frequency of homework assignments was likewise reduced.
“We felt it was best to use this model to limit the amount of work our students do each day,” he said, and while there are some drawbacks to block scheduling, “it seems to be working out.”
Childs credits Serra’s teachers with transitioning to a virtual learning environment very quickly. “Everything was set up and ready to go on March 18 so the kids could return,” he said. “We had a very quick turnaround.”
Other changes have included cancelling final exams, Childs said, because there was no way to properly monitor them.
The school is still hoping to hold in-person graduation ceremonies, possibly as late as Aug. 9, “if we still can do it then,” Childs said. Serra usually holds its commencement ceremony at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood and this year’s celebration was scheduled for May 28.
“We usually have it at the cathedral (but) it will be a different location this year,” he said.
Serra also has had to change the way it meets with prospective new students, Childs said. “I used to meet with new students one-on-one in my office to schedule them for the next year,” he said. “Now I’m doing it through Google Hangouts.”
Google Hangouts have become a way for Serra students to interact with one another as well as with teachers and administrators, Childs said.
“It’s just nice to talk to them and see them talk to each other, you (just) light up, my heart goes out to them,” he said, adding that teachers and staff these days are feeling like “caretakers” as much as educators to students.
“The teachers and staff miss them so much, and they want to do whatever they can to ... bring some kind of normalcy to this experience, because the kids are going through a very stressful time,” Childs said.
Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers McKeesport Area School District, White Oak and a variety of other topics for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published April 29, 2020.