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St. Michael School Earns an "A" for Adaptation

April 28, 2020

“It’s been seamless.”

Carmela and David Patriotti have two sons, Matteo and Luca, who attend St. Michael School in Augusta.   They say they have long been big supporters of the school, but the way it has handled the COVID-19 crisis has made them even more appreciative.

“The school has done an amazing job,” says Carmela. “There really was no interruption.”

“I use videoconferencing a lot for work, so I’m used to it, but they’ve done a great job of going into that realm and making it so the kids don’t lose everything,” says David.

The school’s smooth transition from classrooms to home rooms can be attributed to the foresight of Principal Kevin Cullen and the dedication of the teachers and staff.  Cullen says when he saw the coronavirus spread beyond the borders of China, he knew the danger of it coming here was real.

“I had a meeting with my staff pretty early in February,” he explains. “I said, ‘I think, at some point, we’re going to be shutting down schools.’”

Cullen says there was some skepticism, but he wanted to be prepared. Fortunately, the idea of students studying at home wasn’t new to him. He had been thinking about it for four years, ever since attending a seminar at a national Catholic principals’ conference on not letting snow days go to waste. That’s when he learned about online classes and blizzard bags, work that students could take home.

When Cullen got back from that conference, he began upgrading the school’s technology. He bought Chromebooks for students in the upper grades and urged teachers to become proficient in Google Classroom.

When the coronavirus struck Maine, Cullen knew exactly what to do.

“I had planned this out in my mind for maybe five years, so it wasn’t some novel concept,” he says.

His plans included shorter class lengths and school days, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., recognizing that student attention spans would be shorter when studying online.  He also knew the days needed structure, beginning the way they always have, with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Cullen uses Facebook Live to lead them from his home, also sharing a Gospel reading and a “dad joke,” as he calls them.

“It is to lighten the mood when so many people have depressing thoughts about what is going on,” he says.

Classes then begin using platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom.

“It’s amazing.  At nine o’clock, I check in on them, and they’re settled in.  For four hours, they’re quiet, except for music class when they have to play the ukulele. Then, I’m like, oh my gosh, I want to leave the house it’s so loud,” says Carmela, laughing.

“The first few days were a little hard, because we were still trying to get used to everything, but now, we have it kind of packed down,” says Matteo, a sixth grader.

“It’s actually been pretty good. We haven’t had many distractions,” says Luca, a seventh grader. “It’s better than going to school into July.”

Through Zoom, teachers connect with students at the start of the day and then a couple of times during the day to ensure they’re staying on track.

“I have set out a weekly schedule just like I would plan the week at school, but it’s online learning. I make a pdf of that and send it right to my parents, like what math problems we’re going to be doing,” explains Amanda Turcotte, the second-grade teacher. “I hop on Zoom three times a day at the same time, so the kids know we’re doing this lesson now.”

Parents say giving their children a sense of structure in this disruptive time has been critically important.

“I think that keeps them productive,” says Elizabeth Vanderweide, whose daughter, Sarah, is in the third grade. “That kind of moving forward for anybody gives you a sense of hope and normalcy.”

“Their world has turned upside down. Their sense of normal is not normal anymore, and if I can help in a little way to create some form of routine for them that they’re used to, then I’m doing God’s will,” says Turcotte.

The Zoom sessions have also given the students a chance to connect with their friends.

“A bunch of the teachers give us some time to talk with each other, especially in the morning before class and after class. It’s really helpful,” says Matteo.

“This is a great opportunity for them, where they continue their learning and really not miss out on the education aspect of it, but still bond together as a spiritual group,” says Carmela.

“It’s been a real comfort for her to be able to see her teacher and her classmates,” says Sarah’s mother. “She is an only child, so she probably needs that connection with all those other kids.”

While the teachers and students say they would rather be in the classroom, the students admit there is one plus – being able to study in their pajamas when they’re not dressing up for their weekly live-streamed Mass.