By Jenelyn Russo     12/2/2020

Some of the silver linings that have emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic can be found in the new technology-based tools that schools and educators are using to enhance the way they deliver curriculum to their students.  

A new offering this school year from the Diocese of Orange is St. Polycarp Online Catholic Academy, an education model that provides fully accredited daily online live instruction to students whose families feel more comfortable completing the school year from home. 

“We knew that some of our families were not going to be comfortable going back to school at all, and we wanted to make sure we had a place for them and that Catholic school was available and affordable for them,” says Diocese of Orange Catholic Schools Director of Educational Programs, Dr. Brad Snyder. 

The goal was to re-imagine the St. Polycarp school site, which had recent struggles with enrollment, and provide a new way to support the rapidly changing needs of the community through Catholic education. 

Launched on Sept. 8, St. Polycarp is led by Principal Mary Flock and the nine teachers on staff as they teach 180 students across grades K-8th from throughout Orange County and into Riverside and Temecula. 

A typical school day at St. Polycarp begins with prayer and then a half day of online instruction by the teachers from the Stanton campus classrooms in English, language arts, math, religion, social studies and science via Zoom and Canvas, an education platform. After a lunch break, the students reconvene online for teachers’ office hours and a variety of electives such as music, art and cooking.  

Flock and her team have also worked hard to create a community among the families of St. Polycarp through weekly virtual Mass and rosary ceremonies, online book fairs and annual events such as Red Ribbon Week. Student leaders from the school’s junior high participate in student council and organize service projects. 

“It’s not just about the academic piece,” says Flock. “We’re really trying very hard to keep the socialization and build community. It’s been a great experience.” 

Snyder says the diocese will continue to evaluate the demand for the St. Polycarp format, but in the short term, both he and Flock see students who are thriving and have adapted well to socializing and building an online community.  

“This is a really good opportunity to meet the students where they’re at and teach them good digital citizenship,” says Flock. “That lesson is coming across for our students.” 

Some of the Orange County Catholic elementary school sites have offered an option for their students to remain online for the duration of the school year while attending class synchronously with their in-person classmates. 

At St. Bonaventure Catholic School, Swivl Robot technology, purchased through a donation, allows for the school’s 75 students who are remote this year to be connected to their peers through integrated classrooms that combine a microphone tracking system with Zoom and Smart Boards.  

For third grade teacher Heather Swienton, projecting her Zoom screen onto her Smart Board means that her two students learning from home can hear, see and interact with their classmates during daily instruction. 

“Of course there is a learning curve, as with anything,” says Swienton. “But they are adapting really well. They’re just so excited.” 

Along with Google Classroom, Swienton also utilizes apps such as Flipgrid, ChatterPix, Kahoot and Quizlet to provide new ways for her students to create, present and learn. 

St. Bonaventure’s junior high science teacher, Sarah McGuire, has closer to a 1-to-1 ratio of online and in-person students and is utilizing the Swivl Robot technology to facilitate online simulations for labs. The technology that both McGuire and Swienton have added to their “teaching toolboxes” has turned a challenging year into one of growth as educators and as a school family. 

“Having [the students] all together has been a huge blessing,” says McGuire. “The best thing that has come from having the Swivl in the classroom is creating that sense of community.”