Moments of Grace
In moments of great challenge, there are moments of grace. St. Teresa of Avila exhorts us to “let nothing disturb you; let nothing frighten you. Those who know God have everything. God is enough.” This past year was certainly evidence of that.
Starting in August 2020, the schools of the Diocese of Joliet opened for in-person learning and remained open for the duration for the school year. Given the individual nature of each of the schools, each plan looked different and was calculated to maximize the local resources to be able to provide Catholic education to their respective community. Each school faced their own challenges and ultimately found moments of grace.
These moments of grace came in different forms.
For some, it was validation of the strength of the school community. For Carol Burlinski, principal of St. Isaac Jogues School in Hinsdale, the power of teamwork was validation of her supportive school community.
“From my reopening team composed of teachers and parish staff who assisted me in repurposing physical spaces to accommodate the safety protocols, to the parents who provided funds for additional technology needs, extra sanitation supplies, and additional supervision when needed, to teachers who assumed new roles and/or additional responsibilities,” Burlinski said, “there was the power of all of us working together for the common goal of putting forth our best efforts to keep our children safe. They are our greatest gift from God and deserved our best work.”
This great reminder of strong Catholic school communities pulling together to ensure that schools would be open for instruction is something that was observed across the diocese. There are countless stories of how communities pulled together to meet the individual needs of schools.
As Burlinski noted, “While we frequently spoke about expecting the unexpected, we tackled all challenges head on, changed plans in a moment’s notice, and remained flexible at all times. We leaned on the strength of the St. Isaac Jogues community and united in family and faith to propel us forward.”
Another moment of grace was the constant reminder of the importance of the home-school partnership, a crucial strength of Catholic schools. In order to maintain in-person learning throughout the school year, a trusting home-school relationship is critical.
Gina Pestrak, principal of St. Mary Nativity School in Joliet, noted “If there was any question of illness with their child or within their family, the child stayed home to work remotely. As a result, we never moved the entire school to complete remote learning.”
Stories abound about the important home-schools alliance, all working together to support in-person learning.
Maintaining face-to-face learning was not without its challenges. In order to maintain safe learning environments for students and staff, on-going data was maintained on all of the schools of the diocese. Daily gathering of any positive COVID exposure was collected by the Catholic Schools Office. On-going coordination of efforts with the five different health departments in the diocese was maintained throughout the year.
Of critical importance is the unwavering support of the pastors for each of our schools. While creating reopening plans for liturgy for the parish, pastors were an important resource of support to their schools as they also developed their re-entry plans. There are numerous stories of pastors who found resources to support additional technology acquisition to support remote learning.
There are also countless instances where pastors re-dedicated space to create learning environments to support smaller class sizes to meet the required social distance requirements. The support offered by the pastors was monumental.
There were a number of concerns expressed by many as this school year began. In a time when many people were wary of entering public spaces, staff members of the Catholic schools of the diocese courageously worked to ensure that their classroom environments were not only safe but ready to engage the learner.
Rearranging their instructional spaces to account for appropriate social distancing while giving their classes a comforting touch was a delicate balancing act the teachers embraced as the year began. Some wondered how students would respond to the many safety measures that were in place. Within the first days, those doubts disappeared as students eagerly entered school, easily following the mitigations.
As the year started, many wondered how long the initial victories could be maintained. Preparation for a global pandemic was nothing that any of us received in any of our graduate classes. The common wisdom among many was that the schools would be lucky to make it to Halloween before they would have to move to all remote learning. Once Halloween passed, everyone wondered whether Thanksgiving would be the end point. Every potential end point came and went, and the schools of the diocese remained open.
A moment of grace worth mentioning was the surprises that occurred through the school year that reminded all of the joy and beauty of the world.
Pestrak, St. Mary Nativity’s principal, observed her students and shared: “I felt the greatest hope while listening to our church bells ring every school day at noon while the children laughed and played at recess. These were two constants in our daily lives as we met the challenges of each day with flexibility and creativity to support our students.”
Burlinski, St. Isaac Jogues School’s principal, also shared the hope-giving presence of her students.
“Seeing the children and their smiles (through their masks),” she said, “was just what my soul needed to continue to strive and never lose.”
Prayer for the End of the School Year
At the end of this school year, we give thanks to God: For all the teaching and learning that have taken place in our schools, both in and out of the classroom; for the talents and gifts that have been shared and the challenges that have been faced; for the burdens that have been lifted and the hurts that have been healed; for the respect and care that have been given.
We give thanks for the friendships that have just begun and for those who have grown. For the faith that has been lived in our daily struggles. For the hope that has lifted our hearts on the dark days and for the love that has kept us going. We give thanks for the community that we are, and we ask you, Lord, to bless our students as they take their exams. May Your Spirit inspire them with confidence and calmness.
May all the time together during the past school year leave us with memories to cherish. Pour out Your love on us so that we may return renewed and refreshed to continue our journeys together. We make this prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.