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School directors reflect on their pandemic realities

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Students’ young lives have been completely upended. The familiar, the comfortable, the known — all whisked away by an invisible entity whose ramifications are only too real.

In Congregation-sponsored schools across the globe, many elements of the COVID-19 pandemic are common. Each headmistress or principal has forged ahead as best she can, trying to help students — and their families — navigate what is a fearful and unprecedented time for many.

In this article, we share the reflections of six school administrators as they ponder the uncertainty of these times yet cling with hope to a brighter future.

Following the parents’ meeting at Holy Cross School, Kulaura, Bangladesh, Sister Shiuli (Gomes), CSC, (left) offers tree saplings as a sign of hope for a better future.
Following the parents’ meeting at Holy Cross School, Kulaura, Bangladesh, Sister Shiuli (Gomes), CSC, (left) offers tree saplings as a sign of hope for a better future.

Holy Cross School
Kulaura, Bangladesh
Founded in 2018, serves 50 nursery, kindergarten and primary grade students     

Since most of our students come from very poor and marginalized families, many don’t have a television. They were not aware of the COVID-19 pandemic. We held parents’ meetings to inform them of the situation and taught them how to keep themselves and their children clean and safe.

I can see that students are being emotionally affected. They are feeling bored, impatient and losing spirit. They have no interest in studying and are forgetting what they’ve learned. Some are disobedient, with no hope and no dreams. Many probably will discontinue their studies.

To help them, we minimized the syllabus and provided assignments for each subject. For those who have internet access, we also encourage participation in online classes.

We visit the students and families to get to know their situations — economic, educational, the quality of the relationship among family members. They feel very close to us, and we feel the same. I am concerned for my schoolchildren; many of them are suffering from hunger. I feel helpless that I can’t do anything.

Personally, I am feeling exhausted and hopeless. But I find strength and hope because this pandemic has brought unity in families. Neighbors stand by each other, sharing food as much as they are able. People feel thirsty for God and for eucharistic celebrations. St. Paul reminds us: “When we are weak, we are strong.” So we have to have hope. The whole world is facing the same challenges.

— Sister Shiuli Gomes, CSC, headmistress

Standing in front of Our Lady of Holy Cross School in Barakathal, India, are (from left) Holy Cross Sisters Mitali Mree, Felicita Corraya, Isidora Dkhar, Khochem Mossang, Nobina Rangsa Marak, Parboti (Gomes) and Molly Jacob
Standing in front of Our Lady of Holy Cross School in Barakathal, India, are (from left) Holy Cross Sisters Mitali Mree, Felicita Corraya, Isidora Dkhar, Khochem Mossang, Nobina Rangsa Marak, Parboti (Gomes) and Molly Jacob.

Our Lady of Holy Cross School
Barakathal, India
Founded in 2014, serves 364 students in nursery through eighth grades, on-campus hostels

It was not easy for everyone in the beginning. People were panicking. Suddenly everything changed and was so hard.

Our admission process for the new academic year was going on when the pandemic hit. Because of poor internet access in the villages, we could do admissions only in person. So, parents, guardians, teachers and sisters were scheduled at given times each day. The water tank was kept in front of the school with handwash; we placed sanitizer bottles at every entry and exit point; and masks and social distancing were strictly followed.

Holding online classes every day was a new challenge for teachers as well as parents. Some parents took a few months to get a mobile phone; some still cannot afford to buy it for their kids. It pressures them so much. We try our best to help them out.

I am fortunate to have teachers who are committed and hardworking. In spite of all these challenges, we were able to finish the mid-year exams.

The students are missing their classrooms, friends and teachers. I miss them, too! We are grateful for our donors and benefactors and their big hearts. They provide strength and hope always, especially at this time, as we know they are there for us. Whatever challenges we may face, let us hold on and say to our own self, “Let me not give up today.”

— Sister Khochem Mossang, CSC, headmistress

Sister Repa Anna Costa, CSC, of Holy Cross High School in Bhadun, Bangladesh, reviews lesson plans with a student and her mother.
Sister Repa Anna Costa, CSC, of Holy Cross High School in Bhadun, Bangladesh, reviews lesson plans with a student and her mother.

Holy Cross High School
Bhadun, Bangladesh
Founded in 2015, serves 42 students in grades three through 10

As the students are staying home for a longer time, they feel the need and urgency to come to the school. At the same time, they have lost their interest in study. Parents have a hard time managing their children when they stay at home for the whole day. As the students participate in online classes, they are getting addicted to their mobile devices. Often unable to go out to play, they pass their time with their devices, which affects their brain, eyes, ears and more.

We are staying connected with the students over the phone, and visiting with them while maintaining social distance. We feel happy when we hear their voices and when we see them. We give them assignments and conduct exams, which they participate in from home. But we miss their physical presence at the school.

The most difficult part at this moment is the financial crises of the families, which affect our institution as we are unable to collect tuition fees. Many wage-earners in the family have lost their jobs. Since they don’t have enough money to survive, it is hard for us to ask for the fees. So, we are in a financial crisis as well, as we have to pay salaries to the teachers and staff.

Prayer is the source of our strength. We believe and hope that this pandemic will go away from this world very soon, and we will be able to come back to our normal life.

— Sister Mary Renu Samaddar, CSC, headmistress

Colégio Santa Maria
São Paulo, Brazil
Founded in 1948, serves 2,900 students in preschool, primary and secondary grades

The campus of Colégio Santa Maria in São Paulo, Brazil, rang with joy and laughter when students temporarily returned in October.
The campus of Colégio Santa Maria in São Paulo, Brazil, rang with joy and laughter when students temporarily returned in October.

Since March 15, 2020, all schools in Brazil have been closed due to the pandemic. But we have interactive virtual classes for all 2,300 preschool through secondary students and the 600 adult students who take night classes. In some cases, this has involved buying phone credits for students to access classes.

The staff has been coming in every day to work. After cleaning and fixing things, new projects were taken on to modernize installations and to adapt desks with acrylic shields. Energy was high, but only when 20 percent of our students came back for outdoor learning and art projects in October did real hope return, carried on the wind in the form of shouts and laughter of the children. Virtual classes continued for the others.

Communications between teachers and students occur daily, and activities are modified every time parents or students make suggestions about what is helpful or what makes learning difficult for them. I made three YouTube videos for parents on what Colégio was doing. I even made one for teachers, recognizing their mission in these challenging times.

I find strength and hope in the Providence of God. Daily, God shows me care and inspires me to take risks and be courageous. My professional, personal and spiritual lives this year are seamlessly integrated, not by me, but by everyone I meet or work with, also experiencing these culture of life threats that are invisible but all around us.

­— Sister Diane Cundiff, CSC, principal

Students at Our Lady of Holy Cross School in Kasoa, Ghana, composed stories about their experiences of COVID-19.
Students at Our Lady of Holy Cross School in Kasoa, Ghana, composed stories about their experiences of COVID-19.

Our Lady of Holy Cross School
Kasoa, Ghana
Founded in 2006, serves over 1,000 students in nursery through high school grades in dormitories

Teaching and learning came to a sudden halt on March 15, 2020. We decided to continue to engage our students, to keep them occupied to help reduce anxiety. Through the generosity and creativity of our hardworking staff, we were able to use media like Zoom, WhatsApp and Google Classroom for the nursery through middle school grades.

Students were asked to write or record a story about their experience of COVID-19 and its impact on them and their families. They shared stories of relatives with the coronavirus, their parents’ job losses, their fears about what is going to become of their education, and their worry about themselves or their family getting infected. They are happy, however, to have e-learning.

In October we began using a new e-learning platform called Seesaw for Schools. This was an improvement because it makes teaching and learning very interactive. But so far only half of our students have been able to participate, as some families cannot afford the necessary gadgets and internet service fees.

I sometimes call the students. They are always happy to hear from me. They ask when they will come back to school. I tell them to pray really hard, listen to their parents, and do their homework.

We remain thankful to our donors for their support. Many private schools have been hit hard. We have been able to maintain our employees and cover other expenditures because of our donors’ generosity. We continue to remain hopeful, knowing “this too shall pass.”

— Sister Cynthia Godia Bienaan, CSC, financial controller

A student at Moreau Nursery and Primary School in  Kirinda, Uganda, returned in October, adhering to pandemic protocols.
A student at Moreau Nursery and Primary School in Kirinda, Uganda, returned in October, adhering to pandemic protocols.

Moreau Nursery and Primary School
Kirinda, Uganda
Founded in 2008, serves 365 students up through grade seven, boys’ and girls’ dormitories

The government inspected all schools before reopening them in October. I am grateful to God that our school and hostel received good ratings, which meant we qualified with excellent readiness. We reopened with one senior class, while the other classes continued to study through radio and television. A big number of our students do not have the chance to listen to classes in this way. They have network issues, or the solar power is not working, or batteries are running out. We are hoping that taking class materials to their homes will be of great benefit. Our wish is to reach all our learners, but we are limited by resources.

We managed to pay our teachers for the first two months of the pandemic, but the following months we could not make it. When the one class reopened, we called only four teachers out of 19. The remaining continue struggling as we cannot pay them anything.

Students are emotionally affected. They fear being around others. They strive to stay apart from each other yet want to be together and do things. They are not feeling at peace. Continuing the ministry in this pandemic is not easy. Ensuring protocols and making sure everyone is safe keeps me tensed. There are also the uncertainties of what is next.

I believe God is watching and in control of what is happening in our lives today. For now, we need patience, courage and persistence.

— Sister Jacinta Katusabe, CSC, headmistress

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