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Immaculate Conception School in Towson, like all others in Maryland, takes up ‘home schooling’

On a typical day at Immaculate Conception School in Towson, students begin by sitting in their classrooms preparing to tune in to the morning announcements.

As the day progresses, they would migrate from class to class, break for lunch and recess and wrap up with the afternoon announcements.

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In recent weeks, however, many of those activities, as with schools elsewhere, have shifted online due to the general shutdown surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, causing parents, students and teachers to have to adapt to online learning. In effect, all schools — public and private — have had to make the switch to “home schooling.”

On March 16, four days after Gov. Larry Hogan announced the closing of public schools across the state and Archbishop William E. Lori announced the closing of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Immaculate Conception School, located at 112 Ware Ave., began its first day of online learning, three weeks ahead of Baltimore County Public Schools, according to the BCPS website.

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Rather than meeting in classrooms for instruction or gathering in groups to study, ICS students logged onto their Chromebooks, iPads or laptops to complete their assignments for the day.

Heather Cucuzzella, the school’s principal, said the decision to transition to online learning came early last month as news about the coronavirus worsened.

“We kind of took a look at what was happening across the country early on in March,” she said. “We were pretty confident we were going to be closed at some point.”

Throughout the early part of March, faculty and teachers were advised to begin taking home their belongings in anticipation that they would not be able to return.

“We started those conversations hypothetically early on,” Cucuzzella said. “The archdiocese made it clear we would continue education without interruption.”

During their first week online together, students and teachers carried on instruction using tools like Google Classroom and Zoom to connect with one another. In addition to completing their coursework, students were encouraged to engage in activities like arts and crafts and recess.

Eileen FitzPatrick, who teaches fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade language arts, said technology already had been heavily used in the classroom, which made for a smoother transition to online learning.

“We have been fortunate in that our middle schoolers have their own iPads that they are issued through the school,” she said. “We are able to provide lots of different opportunities for students to learn through many different learning styles.”

As of April 6, BCPS began their first week of “continuity of learning,” whereas most Catholic schools in Baltimore County began the week of March 16, according to the Archdiocese of Baltimore website.

The stark difference between the technology haves and have-nots is playing out across the region’s public schools as, for the first time, school systems attempt to deliver lessons to students at home. Educators worry that the digital divide will leave disadvantaged students even further behind. In Baltimore County, public school students in kindergarten through grade 2 are receiving printed materials for the duration of the schools’ shutdown, unless their parents can offer them a technological device.

In order to transition her lessons online, ICS’ FitzPatrick said she has had to adjust her teaching style.

“When they come into a classroom they are in front of you,” she said. “[Online] there is a short video and it has to be concise and clear and attainable so that the student can continue to feel comfortable in taking on the next assignment.”

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Although FitzPatrick teaches her lessons in real time through Zoom, she said some teachers prerecord their lessons to make them more accessible to students.

“Not all primary schoolchildren have access to a device that is just for them,” she said. “If they can download a video lesson later on in the afternoon that is an option for the younger kids.”

To ensure lessons remain confidential, students are provided with a passcode and must be approved by a teacher in advance to enter the conference.

One of the biggest changes in transitioning to online learning, FitzPatrick said, is providing students with more flexibility. Students are not required to adhere to the typical 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule and can tune in to lessons on their own time.

“[Students] might be learning at 5 o’clock at night, hoping a parent might be able to help them with something,” FitzPatrick said. “It’s an extension of trying to understand what someone else’s learning situation is when you have no control over [it].”

While teaching a class through Zoom, FitzPatrick said she can see each of her students in a box on her screen. She moderates the discussion, while students respond and ask questions.

“I always am sure to rotate through, making sure they are making active contributions,” she said. “[Classes] are more condensed, so you can move a little bit faster knowing you have a limited amount of time.”

Although technology has allowed her to continue to connect with her students outside the classroom, she said some of them benefit more from face-to-face interaction.

“I can post assignments, I can host them, I can give them feedback and written responses, but the spirituality and togetherness is something we all look forward to sharing sooner rather than later,” she said.

In addition to transitioning academics online, the school has the added task of putting their spiritual practices online. Rather than participating in group prayer, monthly Mass or religious studies courses in person, the school posts triweekly virtual prayer sessions, virtual Mass and communion instructions on their Facebook page.

“[We are] giving students the chance to voice their fears and to see and find God in a situation that is scary and uncertain like this one,” Cucuzzella said. “Their faith is a really important component of their lives [and they can] turn to that for reassurance and comfort and strength.”

Not only has the school provided resources to students and teachers, but to parents who are adjusting to having their children at home full time.

Stacey Dawes, the mother of a fifth-grader at ICS and a ninth-grader at Calvert Hall College High School, said Immaculate Conception School has helped parents make the transition by sending them articles on talking to their children about the pandemic and adjusting to a new routine.

“They have provided us with the resources to prepare both academically and emotionally for this,” she said. “They have given the students a great deal of flexibility in terms of when assignments are due and in the traditional school day.”

Since having her children home, she said she has been able to create a routine that closely resembles a typical school day. Despite the abrupt change, she said her children have been able to adjust quickly.

“When they left school, the tone that was set by the school was that this was not going to be a break, it was going to be school, but in a different setting,” she said.

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Nathan Cox, 14, an eighth-grader at ICS, said the transition to online learning generally has been smooth.

“Our teachers are very responsive and helpful,” he said. “The students have done their work and the teachers have helped them do their work.”

Nathan said the biggest adjustment he has had to make to online learning is not having his teachers close by to assist, causing him to have to stay on top of his work.

“I make a list of everything I have to do and check things off as I go,” he said.

Although his classes have shifted online, Nathan said the workload remains the same.

“Teachers try to give us work that will take about the same time as that class if we were in school,” he said. “For example, if we have social studies for 45 minutes while we are in school, our social studies teacher tries to give us about 45 minutes of work online or in Zoom meetings.”

In addition to applying technology to communicate with his teachers, Nathan uses it to keep up with classmates and friends.

“My friends text back and forth and we also get in touch with Zoom and FaceTime and we play video games together,” he said. “We still stay in touch even though we’re not in school.”

Now in his last year at ICS, Nathan is unsure if he will be able to participate in the end-of-year activities planned for eighth-graders, like a class dance, field trip to Hershey Park, luncheon or graduation ceremony. Amid the uncertainty, he said he is ready to go back to school.

“I look forward to getting back into the routine of school and seeing my friends and classmates again,” Nathan said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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