Photos / Mother Teresa Middle School
In March, when most schools in Canada were forced to close because of the coronavirus, students, teachers, and staff members were sent home and virtual learning became the norm. Six months later, the new school year has begun with the threat of COVID-19 still lurking in the air.
How have Jesuit schools and colleges managed to carry out their educational ministry despite the closures? During a time of physical separation, how have they been able to remain closely connected to one another and continue to live out the Jesuit values? Terri Cote (Principal) and Curtis Kleisinger (Executive Director) of Mother Teresa Middle School (MTMS), and Fr. Sami Helewa, SJ, President of Campion College, explain that not only have they been able to continue teaching using technology in creative ways , but they have also been able to respond to the growing needs created by the pandemic, especially by being open to collaboration. These examples invite us to think more broadly about the concept of cura personalis and cura apostolica with respect to the people served by Jesuit communities and works.
The impact of COVID-19 on teachers and students
Last March, both MTMS and Campion College had to close their doors, which deeply affected the students.
Fr. Helewa notes that, fortunately, none of the staff, faculty, or students at Campion College have lost their lives to COVID, but it has had a major impact on the mission of Campion College. He explains:
Undoubtedly, the major impact of the pandemic has been on human interaction. Higher education switched within days to delivering education remotely. Technology has become an invaluable ally in our efforts to continue our ministry of education.
Another challenge has been how to keep the Campion community well connected. Communication between staff and faculty members remains a priority. Through letters from the president’s office, for example, I keep the college informed of any updates we receive from the Ministry of Advanced Education.
Mr. Kleisinger adds:
COVID-19 and the closure of MTMS [a school that serves primarily Indigenous students from disadvantaged backgrounds] has had a significant impact on the students and the community.
We’re dealing with marginalized populations who are in poor health to begin with, so our question was, how do we prevent our community from becoming even more marginalized? The main issue is being able to access to basic necessities including a clean environment, cleaning supplies, food, and access to technology.
Thanks to their extraordinary team, says Terri Cote, the school was able overcome the challenges imposed by the pandemic and find ways to support the students and their families.
Employees have also been affected by the changes imposed by the pandemic.
Fr. Helewa explains:
A great social concern that we are still contending with is that work has invaded our home space. We now find that the barrier between one’s home and workplace has become blurred: it is rare today to see a separation between the two spheres. Home space is now more congested with career-work duties. For many working families, this is not an easy social phenomenon.
The same problems have been recognized at MTMS, notes Mr. Kleisinger:
We had to look after the health of our staff and make sure that our Administrative Team was sensitive to their needs. We set up a virtual happy hour, online games, and found creative ways to connect on a weekly basis.
New teaching and service techniques
When schools were closed, teaching was done online at both Campion College and MTMS. According to Fr. Helewa:
This summer, Campion College has invested heavily in updating the technological equipment in our classrooms. Instead of having students in our classrooms, many of us will be using our Zoom-equipped classrooms to deliver our courses remotely.
The same goes for MTMS, says Mr. Kleisinger:
We had to turn to the internet to continue teaching. Fortunately, our school utilizes technology regularly and students are equipped with their own laptop that we were able to distribute An additional barrier we had to solve was access to Wi-Fi. The school was able to support these families by providing temporary hot spot wireless drop, so student could engage in online learning.
As of September 1, 2020, all who come to the campus of University of Regina (including Campion College) are required to wear a nonmedical mask in the common areas, and there are other measures in place as well. At MTMS, all instruction will be delivered in-person and the school is undertaking a host of measures to modify routines, procedures and behaviours to ensure a healthy environment, including masks, plexiglas, handwashing, cleaning, etc.
Mr. Kleisinger’s list of the school’s sanitary measures makes it easy to see why the students’ families were confident to send their children back to school to start the new school year. Families know that every effort is being made to take care of the students.
Both educational institutions were obliged to find creative ways to continue activities and student life. Fr. Helewa describes a number of activities that are already in place to help prepare students and professors:
– Our website includes space for student discussions.
– During the summer, faculty members held pedagogical sessions on distance education.
– All COVID-19 updates are posted on our website.
– The Campion Connect program was launched this summer to help high school students complete their literacy and numeracy curriculum.
– Campion Orientation Prep Education is in place to assist incoming first-year students on what to expect regarding their learning experience at the college.
– We are having at UR Courses a non-credited course on the Gospel of Luke, run by our Campus Minister, for student reflection and spiritual conversation for their spiritual needs during the pandemic.
Ms. Cote notes that MTMS also arranged ways to connect with students and the wider community.
We saw new learning opportunities for the team, new teaching opportunities and ways to engage students virtually. To engage and motivate students and the community, we had art workshops for students, book clubs, cooking contests, and even an after-school program with a group of entrepreneurs who continued to meet virtually.
A grade 7 student sent us a note requesting that Mass resume online. Our team wants to create spaces where students can be heard if they feel a need or see something that can make the school better. We e are doing everything we can to make that happen. We reached out to Campion College and were able to get Father Jeff Burwell SJto celebrate Mass online once a month.
In both cases, these changes have had a great social emotional and financial impact.
Recreating an online educational framework has not been the only work of Campion College and MTMS in recent months. Fr. Helewa highlights the collaborative work between the Ministry of Advanced Education and public institutions of higher education.
This collaboration has served the sector well through engaging several Saskatchewan colleges and universities. In the early days of the pandemic, collaboration was almost daily; now it is periodic. These meetings have been a mutual learning experience in managing the response to the pandemic.
Every collaboration has worked quite well. Campion is more than a building, it’s a vibrant community of service. On this point, however, I think it’s worth mentioning a great challenge for the sector of higher education: specifically, there should be better discourse between the safety of public health of our people and the mental health challenges that the COVID-19 measures inflict.
Health and safety were also at the heart of the measures taken by MTMS. To ensure that all students, and more broadly, all families had access to food and essential items (nearly 500 people), a plan was developed, explain Ms. Cote and Mr. Kleisinger.
We made an agreement with a Regina Food Bank to deliver food and hygiene products [paid for by MTMS] based on family size. We started in March and just finished in August. Under Curtis’s leadership, the school bus drivers, who could not drive the children, still served the community effectively by delivering boxes of food to the families (contactless delivery).. We were also able to support housing security in some cases and costs associated with post-secondary education, as many students were unable to find consistent summer employment.
The school has also responded to specific needs, particularly with the help of the community.
There was a grandmother who had twelve people living in her house. She phoned us in April and told us that she didn’t know what to do since her television didn’t work anymore. How could she entertain twelve confined people? Fortunately, one of our volunteers had just bought a new large-screen television that he was not using. We were able to drop it off at the grandmother’s house.
As at Campion College, caring for the mental health of students from a distance was a challenge for MTMS.
We know that the lengthy remote learning phase, followed by a summer break, created a variety of challenges for students and their families. We couldn’t meet with the students in our offices, but we were able to do consultations online or by taking walks together outside. Also, when we delivered the food boxes, the students were able to come outside, and we could talk to them from a distance and listen to them.
The pandemic has brought numerous challenges to the education sector in the Jesuit Province of Canada. Educational institutions, both Campion College and MTMS as well as others such as St. Paul’s High School (who made an informative document for parents and students), Regis College or Loyola High Schooll, have found ways not only to teach but to exercise Cura Personalis for all students.