At Immaculate High School, Life Goes On, Online

The new coronavirus hit fast, and hard. Immaculate’s teachers were given one day to move everything online. Here’s what happened…

DANBURY—Everyone is talking about how tough it’s been for local students to suddenly switch from real classrooms to distance learning during the new coronavirus crisis. Not so many are talking about what it took for the teachers to pull it off.

At Immaculate High School in Danbury, teachers were given one day of “professional development” to move their show from the blackboard to the cloud. That may sound like a tall order, but it was really only an incremental jump.

Immaculate’s policy of regularly scheduling “e-learning” days whenever school was cancelled due to bad weather not only obviated their need to make up for snow days at the end of the year, but also laid the groundwork for their online work in the virus crisis. On snow days, Immaculate teachers use Google Classroom as the means to distribute assignments, grade work, and send students feedback.

But to Mary Maloney, the school’s president, the anticipated long haul at home which the new coronavirus promised meant Immaculate needed to step up their online game a bit more.

Immaculate added Microsoft Teams to their e-learning toolbox in March. The online collaboration software, released in 2017, is the successor to Microsoft Classroom, and allows for real-time teaching and visuals, using computers’ and tablets’ built-in cameras.

“This is virtual and live,” is how Maloney described her new online classrooms. “Students sign in at the beginning of their regularly scheduled day and spend the entire day with their teachers, logging in live with each one of their classes.”

Teachers have had to incorporate videos, and materials from the non-profit online learning resource Khan Academy, to compensate for missing classroom resources such as labs.

“The teachers have had to create ways to be able to engage students in group work, creating satellites, or off-shoots, of their virtual classroom for students to engage in group activities,” said Wendy Neil, Immaculate’s principal. “They had to come up with ways to assess students virtually, and change how an assessment might look. It might not just be essays, it could be some other type of activity to demonstrate mastery.”

The most creative efforts by Immaculate educators may have been those directed at taking attendance. Try to sneak out in the middle of Algebra while inside a real classroom, and you’ll get nailed pretty quickly. Ducking out of a virtual classroom, by comparison, seems a lot more doable.

One of the requirements for the students at Immaculate is that they have their computer’s camera on, and their face is in the frame, at all times.

“The teachers have found apps that help them, through a lottery system, call on students, to ensure they are engaged,” Neil told Patch. “The teachers are constantly shuffling through the kid’s images to make sure they see their faces on screen.”

The online school day at Immaculate is as long as its in-person counterpart. The teachers are teaching in their virtual classrooms for the full 55 minutes of class, and then they are providing “office hours” after school for extra help, just as they did pre-pandemic.

Even many of the after school activities are still being run. Neil cited the Engineering Club and the Rosary Club as examples. The Honor Society, whose members help classmates with homework, is still tutoring other students, albeit virtually.

The whole deal sounds pretty sweet. And brick-and-mortar is pretty expensive. Who needs it, right?

Everybody, according to Maloney, but especially the students: “They miss school. They miss the socializing. There is an element to being at school, the personalization, is not the same online as it is in the building.”

“If anything else, this experience has taught the students and the teachers how much they appreciate being together,” Neil said.

It’s not just the students who need to be kept engaged, Maloney said.

“For the past three or four days, we’ve been having ‘virtual’ coffee chats with parents, three sessions every morning, just to see how parents are doing and see how we can better support what’s going on in the house and the homes. And it’s been very positive, so we believe that they’re pleased with what’s happening.”

Gov. Ned Lamont has closed the schools through at least May 20, and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton has said he didn’t think school would come back in non-virtual session until the fall. But Maloney says Immaculate is not working under that premise.

“We are staying positive,” she said, hopeful they will be able to “have a few weeks at the end of the school year.” Although pragmatically they are beholden to the State’s schedule for their bus transportation needs, they will ultimately take their cue from the Diocese of Bridgeport.

High school, particularly for seniors, is about more than Precalculus.

“We pushed everything to the last week of May, a couple of weeks ago, thinking that would give us plenty of time,” Neil said. “So their Class Night, the senior prom, baccalaureate awards event, and graduation are all ganged up one day after the other in the final week of May.”

Keep your fingers crossed.

By Rich Kirby  I  Patch Staff