OLF Catholic Academy: Staying Connected Despite the Distance

WILTON—While cases of COVID-19 continue to rise and opportunities for face-to-face learning become comprised, schools around the diocese and across Connecticut have had to adjust both their standard curriculum and their approaches to teaching. A majority have had success transitioning to distance learning, though Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy in Wilton is one that has emerged with innovative ways to keep students active, engaged, and connected.

In early March, when administrators were still hopeful that their schools would remain open, Our Lady of Fatima had already begun planning for this pedagogical shift in learning by encouraging their educators to attend professional development workshops on video conferencing apps and online platforms such as Goggle Meet. According to OLF principal Stanley Steele, the teachers embraced it and, with assistance from the diocese’s technology support staff, created a virtual community so students could transition with relative ease once the school did shut down.

“One of the best things is that all the teachers accepted this new way of learning and are really utilizing it,” said Steele. “Everyone gets that these are unprecedented times. This technology allows them to stay connected with their students.”

When this PreK-grade 8 diocesan school first began distance learning several weeks ago, teachers assigned review work and students submitted it. That quickly changed, though, as each grade level switched to frequent sessions with new material on Google Meet, a video chat service that allows students to communicate with teachers and administrators. Such a model is being used at OLF to break children into small groups, encourage them to discuss and ask questions, and provide teachers the opportunity to conduct mini lessons. Despite some “hiccups,” Steele said, they are all invested in making this work.

“Sometimes the students don’t have their computer video cameras on. Sometimes parents don’t receive the invite and so on,” he said. “Even Google has had trouble! But we appreciate it all. We’re making it work.”

And it’s not just the 45-minute lessons that are working. PreK teachers are still reading stories to children and sending activity packets, students in grades 7 and 8 are able to continue their Book Club chats online, and advanced Algebra classes have differentiated groupings so all can participate and learn at their own pace—and stay connected with each other.

That connection is something for which parents are especially grateful. “Distance learning lets the kids see their friends again,” said Stephanie Zavala, a mother of two from St. Joseph Parish in Norwalk. “We are a social community, and this has all been so positive. This type of learning gives every kid the stability and structure of a routine. They know that their teachers and their principal have not forgotten them.”

Steele also acknowledged the importance of remaining connected and has continued the 9:00 am Mass on Fridays, encouraging the school community to watch it streaming live from Nest Cam. Additionally, each day begins with him leading students in the Pledge of Allegiance, Morning Prayer, and announcements. “They hear my voice,” Steele said, “and that’s important.”

Many younger children do not understand the reasons behind all this sudden change. Zavala said her own daughters are confused because “they can go in the backyard and play, but they can’t go to school. Seeing and hearing their teachers and principal give them a sense of security. They know Mr. Steele is still here for them.”

The older students, who better understand the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, produced a Stations of the Cross video while several parents created a live Facebook post to pray the Rosary together—evidence of the positivity and devotion that continue at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy even in these challenging times.

“We live the faith,” said Zavala. “Social distancing won’t dull this energy. As one mother said, ‘The building is closed, but the Fatima family is still running.’”

By Emily Clark