Catholic schools report that remote learning, while not ideal, is working

The kitchen counter makes a fine work space for Cooper Behrends, a fourth-grader at St. Joseph School in Pekin. The flexibility of remote learning, which can be done during the day or at night, makes it easer for some families with more students than devices to keep everyone moving forward. (Provided photo)

It may not be what anyone would have chosen, but remote learning is working for Catholic schools around the Diocese of Peoria.

Not only are teachers, principals and parents working together to move the curriculum forward, but they’re also paying special attention to the spiritual, emotional and social needs of the young people in their care.

And principal after principal praised their teachers for being creative, going the extra mile to find new ways to engage the students in a variety of formats.

Ella Henehan, 8, a third-grader at Epiphany Catholic School in Normal, holds the learning bag teacher Molli Wey left on her porch last week. The message in chalk sums up what a lot of teachers, principals and students are feeling as remote learning continues. (Provided photo)

“They’ve really taken it on and been rock stars through the whole thing,” said Lisa Doughan, principal at St. Thomas School in Philo. “I can’t thank our teachers enough.”

She said they’ve been using a mix of online and non-digital resources to accommodate the different circumstances of their families who may not have enough devices for each child to use or the internet connections they need.

“We’re trying to make it simple and accessible,” she told The Catholic Post.

Some of her teachers have been making videos of themselves giving lessons and using smartboard technology, while the younger students get packets with worksheets to complete. These were made for parents to “grab and go” from tables outside the school.

Wendy Carmien, a teacher of a multiage classroom for grades 2 and 3, has developed a two-week lesson plan with five things for students to choose from. “They write about things, reflect about things, and some days I ask them to pick a book and read.”

As with many other schools, some assignments are returned by taking photos of the completed work on a cellphone and being sent to her. There has also been a lot of email going back and forth, she said.

“If there’s one good thing about this, it’s that it’s a little later in the year and they know the routine,” Carmien explained.


At Seton Catholic School in Moline, videos of the teachers greeting the students and saying how much they miss them pop up on Facebook from time to time. Children in the younger grades are getting phone calls, with teachers asking how they are and what they’ve been doing.

“I’ve heard wonderful stories about that,” said principal Jane Barrett. “The kids are just so excited to hear the teacher’s voice.”

They’re also missing their friends and that interaction is a vital part of how pre-kindergarten students learn, said teacher Jill Zmuda. She has been providing choice boards that allow the children to explore colors, shapes, math, science, reading and language arts, among other things.

“I make it fun so they don’t even realize they’re learning,” she said.

The older students at Seton Catholic are using Google Classroom to get assignments and stay connected with the teacher and each other through the comments section. Barrett said the school has loaned out Chromebooks to make this easier on families.

“The teachers have all said, ‘This has made me test my skills as a teacher,'” she told The Post. “Everybody has been helping everybody.”

They keep track of their students by sending out a morning message by 8:30 a.m. The students are asked to respond by 10 a.m.

“It’s our way of knowing if someone checked in to see what the work is for the day,” Barrett said. If someone doesn’t do that for a day or two, she contacts the student and the parents so they don’t fall behind.


Mike Lootens, principal at Epiphany Catholic School in Normal, said they’ve been using trial and error to see how much is too much and what is too little in terms of online learning.

“We try to keep in mind that the parents are home, too, and may have a first-grader, a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader they’re helping while trying to get their own work done.” — Mike Lootens, principal, Epiphany Catholic School, Normal

“We try to keep in mind that the parents are home, too, and may have a first-grader, a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader they’re helping while trying to get their own work done,” he said.

Some of his teachers are using Zoom, but if a family has one device and three children that may not work all the time. So teachers have been taping or recording lessons, asking students to read, or having them explore the world from their backyard.

Third grade teacher Molli Wey has been taking the lessons to the students. She just delivered learning bags with materials for a biography paper they will start through video lessons, and a book, “Charlotte’s Web,” that they will read later this month. The students also found a couple treats in their bags.

Wey takes chalk with her and leaves a message on the sidewalk or porch for each student, along with the learning bag.

To help students at St. Malachy School in Geneseo, principal Heather Francque loaned out 72 Chromebooks and said the students and their families are really engaged in this new way of learning.

“We certain wish we could be at school and we miss the kids, but we’re serving students in the way we should,” she said.

In some places, such as Schlarman Academy in Danville, the teachers are also facing challenges in terms of technology. Principal Mark Janesky said two of his teachers live so far out of town that they don’t have access to the internet.

In addition, some of the high school students are working for their parents during these uncertain economic times, while other families have chosen to seek shelter outside of Illinois.


Still, the mission of Catholic education goes on and must go on, with each person contributing in their own way, said Sister Sara Kowal, SCTJM, principal of Peoria Notre Dame High School.

Faculty and students have been posting on the school’s PNDTogether blog and sharing inspirational video messages called Heart to Heart. The community also stays connected through morning prayer and announcements on the school’s website,

Geri Tracey, the sixth grade reading and religion teacher at Seton Catholic Academy in Moline, asked her students to draw a message of hope that could be displayed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Will Hampton sent back a picture that includes things he’s interested in with flames between the images. He told Mrs.Tracey those were destroying the germs that cause the coronavirus. (Provided photo)

“I think that’s been beautiful to see because that shows you a deeper understanding of who we are and what our mission is,” she said. “Everyone is saying, ‘This is a different situation,’ but the mission we have to cultivate the body and mind and soul of our students and our families, ultimately, doesn’t stop. In fact, it’s more needed.”

And the schools have continued with their service projects.

When the call went out at Epiphany for cheerful cards and artwork for area nursing homes, families responded with 250 projects.

At St. Joseph School in Pekin, students and their families were encouraged to view the Mass streamed from their church on a recent Friday morning and made cards or wrote letters for nursing home residents and essential workers.

Sean Foster, principal at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington, said students are beginning to realize that there are many experiences they’re going to miss, such as prom, senior nights for band, choir and athletics, and honors days. The faculty and staff are trying to meet the students’ social and emotional needs by doing what they can to provide virtual experiences for some of these things and a hotline has been set up for anyone who wants to talk or ask questions.

A parent webinar is also planned so they can walk through Google Classroom and get a better understanding of that platform from the students’ perspective.

“I’ve sent emails to families to say we’re all in this and we’ll get through it,” Barrett said. “Someday we will all be here together.”

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