Thank goodness Darcie Girmus knew what a snow day was.
After teaching for 17 years in her native Nebraska, Girmus spent 16 years at a school in Virginia before joining South Pasadena’s Holy Family Catholic School as its principal for the start of the current academic year — “What an interesting year, right?” she asked with a laugh. Moving to Southern California to continue her career meant leaving behind snow and the spontaneous havoc it would wreak on a school.
Now, with the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic that has all but completely shut down schools in California, Girmus has had to dust off those memories again.
“There’s never a reason school closes here,” Girmus said, “but out there, it’s typical. I had watched this virus in China, and when it first came to the U.S., I started saying to the faculty, this might be a real thing. We might have to go into a remote teaching situation. If you start thinking about it now, you can start to make plans.”
Holy Family made the decision to close the school — a step many public school districts also have taken — on Friday, March 13, as the nation began to grapple with the reality of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that often presents flu-like symptoms and can escalate to organ failure and death. For the moment, it has no cure or vaccine.
Though the spread of the virus in China began in November, it did not become apparent how wide its reach was until late February, and by that point, the world faced little option but to essentially begin shutting down entire facets of society to contain it.
“It was just a gut feeling that this could happen,” Girmus said. “Some of the teachers just looked at me like I had two heads, because schools never close around here for any reason. I just knew it could happen.”
Fortunately, the school had a bit of a head start. Being a participant in the 1:1 — read as “one to one” — Chromebook program, Holy Family had a Chromebook ready to go home with each of its approximately 300 students. Teachers also already used the Schoology platform with students to complement daily classroom instruction.
Since the closures, teachers have since figured out other apps to use to help their students learn at home, while also teaching from their homes.
“We just went from face-to-face on Friday to online on Monday, and the teachers never missed a beat,” Girmus said. “The teachers have been working overtime just to learn some of this software, but they had enough in place initially to get them through the first weeks.”
Middle school Spanish teacher Elizabeth Aceves, who has been with Holy Family for eight years, said she has been making use of apps like Kahoot! and Quizlet to have her students keep up with lessons and tests. She said she and her colleagues have been “pleasantly surprised” at how quickly they were able to transition to distance learning with their students.
“Teaching Spanish is so much about gestures and playing games, so I’ve had to figure out new ways of doing that through online teaching. It’s been different, for sure,” Aceves said. “At first, I thought my first session was going to be ‘Hey, let’s just figure this out together.’ I didn’t think I’d actually be teaching a lesson because we would have technical issues, but we didn’t have any.”
Although hosting a video lesson with middle school students is fairly straightforward, elementary school-age kids take a different approach, one that emphasizes a consistent structure. First-grade teacher Carrie Levin, who has spent 14 years at Holy Family, laughed when asked about “wrangling” her class together every day.
“My goal was just to maintain a sense of continuity,” she said, adding that she also is using the app Seesaw for Schools. “I feel like the routine in 1st grade is just so important, so the first thing I did was put together a pack of their sort-of schedules, so that their parents didn’t feel as lost. Structure is what they need.
“In the meantime, I’ve been posting morning routine videos,” Levin continued. “I’m still giving them their morning calendar with the weather and charts and graphs and all of that. They get a morning story time, so they can watch me read to them. They have assignments throughout the day in math and language arts. Then they get an afternoon story time, too. It’s a little different from junior high in that we’re not doing full-on meetings yet, but we’re using a lot of technology to get by.”
Fran Smiland, who teaches middle school math and 8th-grade science, said she also has worked in tech and was encouraged by a parent to dive right into distance learning once that became the new reality for schools and families. When students went home on March 13, they brought all their books with them.
“We just started testing things that weekend and dove right in Monday morning,” said Smiland, who graduated from Holy Family and has worked there for 14 years. “I’ve been teaching my classes basically the same as I would every day. They’re asking questions. There’s interaction. It’s definitely not ideal, but we’re learning. I’m doing all of the same things and I’m lucky to have co-workers who are there to support me. Everybody’s collaborating and being a really big help to each other.
“We’re all so dedicated to this community that we were all, ‘We’re going to do this and do it right,’” she added.
Girmus said the school was implementing a weekly challenge of sorts to keep students “excited and engaged” for something different each week. For example, students were tasked this week with sharing photos of their learning areas set up at home. Additionally, faculty members are conferencing periodically to discuss new ideas and improvements to the distance learning experience, which in all likelihood will continue for at least the rest of the school year.
“This has made us incredibly collaborative, because we’re each teaching each other what the other person has to know and stepping up and helping one another,” the principal said. “Even among some of the parents, we’re looking for ways to train some of them on our technology. We’re just trying to find ways to utilize everybody’s gifts and talents to make sure all employees are productively busy.”
There are hiccups, of course. Sometimes there are connection issues. Other times call for the classic “restart the computer and try again” solution. That said, teachers said they’re still finding cherishable moments as silver linings to being out of their beloved classrooms.
“My 8th-graders sometimes don’t want to get off Zoom,” explained Smiland, referring to the group video chat app. “I’m like, ‘I’ve got to go, guys!’”
Added Levin, who exchanges messages frequently with her 1st-graders: “Every single one ends with ‘We miss you and wish we were in school.’ It’s very sweet.”
Some things can’t be replicated altogether. The school’s traditional weekly Stations of the Cross presentations for Lent, for example, could not continue once school was shuttered and there was a directive for people to avoid grouping together for long periods of time.
“This year, unfortunately, we only got to do it once,” said Michele Rodriguez, director of communications for Holy Family. “It’s sad because their parents look forward to these milestones, these big moments, especially with the 8th-graders, and these are things they just aren’t going to get to do.”
However this life-changing crisis wraps up, the Holy Family faculty seems prepared to continue its educational mission and purpose. Girmus said she recalled reading something recently about the past two weeks being the greatest period of technological innovation in teaching and had a difficult time disagreeing, adding only that it wasn’t contained to any one area. It was global and simultaneous.
“The teaching staff at this school has been so tremendous in making sure the kids still connect,” Rodriguez added. “Everyone’s trying to connect with everyone to really feel that sense of community. Something we take a lot of pride in is that we’re trying to band together no matter what.”