Any change is hard. But drastic, forced change, like the kind students across the state and much of the nation experienced last month due to COVID-19, is especially difficult.
Teamwork, quick thinking, cooperation and preparedness allowed Mater Dei Prep to implement online learning for students and faculty with relative ease once Gov. Phil Murphy closed schools in the face of a global pandemic.
The school’s online learning plan quickly came together with the help of administrators and numerous faculty members. “Our teachers spent four days putting together a process and plan to ease the transition from in-school learning to virtual learning,” said Jen DeBiase, Head of Advancement for Mater Dei Prep. “With the time constraint that was thrown at them, they navigated beautifully through the process and did not skip a beat.”
MDP’s goal is to maintain as much normalcy as possible during this time and promote open communication with its community regarding the virtual learning process.
The school utilizes its existing PowerSchool accounts to post materials, communicate directly with students, administer exams and track attendance and grades. A majority of the faculty uses Microsoft Teams and Zoom video conferencing software to replicate the classroom structure, allowing teachers and students to maintain the face-to-face learning experience. The school also encourages student involvement through direct emailing and continuous updating through numerous digital platforms, including social media.
“There are a lot of positives about virtual learning,” said longtime history teacher Michael Bonelli. “I think it’s fostering a new sense of responsibility in some students who are now hyper aware that they have to be online at a certain time, as well as getting their work in on time.”
“I’m amazed at the resilience of many students during this transition,” added Bryan Scotton, an MDP religion teacher. “Although, face-to-face classroom instruction can never be replaced, my students have been on top of their work.”
Home isn’t the classroom, though, and some students may need the occasional nudge to stay on track. But Bonelli said the students are doing a great job supporting one another. “I’ve also seen kids in my classes making sure that classmates are online once the meeting starts,” he said. “To see them picking each other up is nice.”
And a number of students are trying to find the silver lining in the abrupt switch to virtual classrooms. “Online learning has forced me to better my time management skills,” said senior Peter Gorman, who plans to use those improved skills in college this fall.
“Starting online schooling was a huge adjustment, but a great aspect about Mater Dei Prep is our teachers,” said senior Summer Schiappacasse. “My teachers are available 24/7 to help me, answer my questions, and assure me that it is all going to be okay.”
Student engagement and learning isn’t the only factor in the success of online learning; teacher positivity is a crucial aspect of the process.
“My co-workers have all adapted so well and have been so helpful. There is still a sense of community amidst our isolation,” said Scotton.
That sentiment isn’t lost on parents either. “MDP, through virtual learning, is providing a structure and certainty at a time where those things are hard to come by,” said Danielle Benavides (P ’21).
When life returns to normal and the stay-at-home order is lifted, Scotton hopes some aspects of virtual learning continue.
“It is interesting that so many students miss the interactive aspect of school,” he said. “Perhaps upon our return, we will appreciate our community even more!”