By Dr. Erin Barisano, Superintendent, Orange Catholic Schools     6/11/2020

“After careful consideration, and in light of the fluid nature of this pandemic, the Diocese of Orange elementary schools will close their school buildings and cancel classes and student-related activities…” 

I wrote these words on March 13, 2020 to inform our diocese that school campuses would be closed for the foreseeable future. If someone had told me that I would be closing school campuses across the diocese for an extended amount of time, even two weeks before the pandemic, I would not have believed them. What a crazy idea! In a school system with nearly 18,000 students, how would students continue to learn? How would teachers continue to teach? How would schools continue to offer opportunities for faith formation? How would we continue to experience community at our local sites? I am not new to online learning and have experienced online classes both as a student and as a teacher. While it is not difficult to deliver content, the real challenge is student engagement to ensure that lessons are relevant and interesting. Additionally, I could not imagine how teachers would successfully integrate Catholic identity into an online format. Two weeks before the pandemic I would have argued that closing schools for an extended amount of time was just not possible. But, here we are, 13 weeks at home and this Doubting Thomas is now a believer in distance learning.   

When I came to the Diocese of Orange nearly two years ago, my focus was on implementing the strategic goals of the School Sustainability Study.  These goals were a roadmap for school improvement and focused on four core priorities that guided our work: Catholic identity and faith formation, academic excellence, operational vitality, and leadership. Notice, there is no mention of technology or distance learning in this plan for school improvement. Fortunately, our diocese was a leader in educational technology so all of our schools had access to student devices, connectivity, and learning apps. Our schools were not strangers to utilizing educational technology, but there was never an expectation that technology would be the primary tool to teach. Yes, there have been challenges, and I acknowledge that distance learning is not the best approach for all students, but our teachers have done an amazing job in educating our students so that they are on track for the next grade level.  

The weekend before we launched distance learning, members of the Department of Catholic Schools (DCS) team collaborated with Loyola Marymount University to design focused professional development to support our teachers. I honestly didn’t know what to expect those first few days, but my fears and anxieties were quickly allayed. What our teachers accomplished almost overnight was nothing short of a miracle! Their calm demeanor and faith-filled approach to distance learning was truly inspiring and, 13 weeks later, I continue to be filled with hope for our schools and for our Church. Teachers continue to be models of faith and love to our students both inside and outside of the virtual classroom. During this time of crisis and trauma, our teachers have been educational and spiritual first responders and I am forever grateful for their passion and commitment to our students. 

As I reflect on this experience from a leadership perspective, I cannot help but think about my DCS team. I had the privilege of building this team from the ground up, and I truly believe that the Holy Spirit has guided our efforts along the way. I have participated in and led various teams throughout my career, but I have never experienced such a high level of commitment, respect, trust, and competence in a team. This has all been balanced with a laser-like focus on evangelization and mission. I have always believed that the key to strong leadership is to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. I believe that I have accomplished this with the team that surrounds me. I am filled with gratitude and humility that God has called me to serve our diocese during this time. 

The work that has been accomplished in the past three months was certainly unexpected, but always focused on academic achievement and faith formation for our students and partnership with our parents. We have not lost sight of our core priorities and, in many ways, have had opportunities to advance our goals during this time. I continue to be filled with hope for the future of Catholic schools even when the challenges are so great. Our focus on evangelization and mission remains strong and is more important now more than ever for the future of our world. As we wind down this extraordinary year and look ahead to new challenges and opportunities, I am reminded of a saying from my college years. It is attributed to Dag Hammarskjold, but I will always think of my dorm rector, Sr. Joris, for sharing these words of wisdom with me, “For all that has been, thanks; for all that will be, yes!”