Nothing replaces in-person learning, but schools went above and beyond for their kids, parents say: ‘I can’t imagine it going any better’

DETROIT — It was the tail end of a school year nobody expected, and nobody surely wanted. 

Distance learning has been a challenge for students, parents and teachers across the Archdiocese of Detroit. But across the region, parents have given Catholic schools glowing reviews for the implementation of the online curriculum they organized and executed on the fly.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but it seemed very grim when I got the call that first night, when they said school was closed,” Carmen Brigulio told Detroit Catholic.

Brigulio’s son, Dominic, just finished first grade at Holy Family Regional School in Rochester Hills, and her daughter, Gabriela, completed the under-5 program.

“I was in shock when Holy Family said we would be doing online learning,” Brigulio said. “We started to buy supplies, thinking this would be a two-week thing. Never would I have thought the school year would end this way.”

The “two-week thing” turned into a “two-month” thing, where parents, most working from home, managed their children’s learning on tablets — some lent by schools, others using their home devices — as lessons were given via email and online platforms such as Zoom.

Benjamin Ptak smiles while working on an assignment from home. 
Sarah Ptak fills out a report for her school, St. Mary in Mount Clemens.

Parents who spoke with Detroit Catholic said they were impressed by teachers’ resourcefulness and creativity, from making videos and hosting online “office hours” to curtailing lessons for a digital environment — a validation of their investment in Catholic education.

“I don’t know if I had big expectations, but I knew St. Mary’s would provide nothing but amazing support,” said Stacey Ptak, whose triplets, Jacob, Benjamin and Sarah, just finished the fifth grade at St. Mary School in Mount Clemens. “Everyone at the school, from the administration to the teachers, wants these kids to succeed; I had no worries about my kids getting a proper education.”

Brigulio said the Catholic values instilled at Holy Family were paramount in the online lessons, keeping current events in their proper context.

“I loved how faith was intertwined with the lessons,” Brigulio said. “We had morning prayer, and even when teachers were talking about how difficult the situation was, it circled back to our faith and the importance of prayer. We were giving thanks to God for our blessings, praying for loved ones, praying for God to end COVID-19. They weren’t just listening to the news, but also learning how to deal with the situation in our faith, and that is priceless.”

Glowing reviews

Each school in the Archdiocese of Detroit — and each classroom and teacher — had to adapt differently to the challenges of online learning, but parents say the effort didn’t go unnoticed. 

“My husband and I loved how accessible the staff were, answering emails at any time with questions we or our children had,” Brigulio said. “They were extremely supportive, not only of our students, but of us, because we have never been in this position. The teachers were available via email, text, live Google sessions; it was amazing.”

Beyond the curriculum, parents praised the effort that went into maintaining the Catholic school environment, from online school Masses, morning prayer or visits from school pastors.

Sarah Peterson, a teacher at Holy Family Regional School in Rochester Hills, and her sons, Eli and Evan, who are students there, say the school showed its Catholic values through remote Masses, daily prayers and lessons centered on faith.

“Holy Family did an amazing job with continuing to teach the faith throughout the lessons,” said Sara Peterson, who teaches at Holy Family and whose two sons, Eli and Evan, just completed sixth and fourth grades there. “We still had a May crowning and an end-of-year prayer service that was done online. I’m very grateful my kids go to a Catholic school, and I’m very thankful I teach at a Catholic school. Holy Family surpassed any expectations.” 

Kara Downey said she doesn’t fear her children fell behind because they spent a quarter of the school year learning from home.

“There were real classes, not just videos,” said Downey, whose son Jimmy just finished his freshman year at Cardinal Mooney High School in Marine City and whose daughter, Gemma, was an eighth-grader at nearby Holy Cross School. “If I was hoping for something, it would be what Cardinal Mooney and Holy Cross did, with as much person-to-person contact as they could.”

No bell, but the schedule remains

As teachers adapted the curriculum to online learning, parents adapted to having their children learning online. Most parents who spoke with Detroit Catholic tried to maintain an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school schedule, with students learning from a specific spot in the home. Over time, however, it became clear that students worked through the online curriculum much faster, meaning school days would end around noon or 1 p.m.

“(At Holy Family), we always started at 9 a.m. with a morning prayer from the school, the Pledge of Allegiance and a recording of the birthday announcements, and then my kids would go to their spaces to begin their work,” Peterson said. 

Downey had her kids keep a consistent schedule. Classes were 35 minutes long, starting at 8 a.m., with teachers available for live Google Classroom sessions and emails afterward.  

Dominic and Gabriela Brigulio spoke remotely with their teachers at Holy Family Regional School, who made themselves available daily for questions, lessons and help with remote assignments.  

Downey and her husband are attorneys, working from home during the stay-at-home order, but were around to provide support when necessary.

“When they asked for help, it was more on uploading assignments or downloading something,” Downey said. “Sometimes they would be taking online tests, turning it in at a certain time, and we were just there to make sure they turned it in.”

Ptak said St. Mary School also encouraged students to stick to a schedule, with certain days dedicated to specific subjects in a pattern that mirrored a normal school schedule.

“We were very meticulous with the schedule, starting at 8:30, and the kids would want to get it all done. They didn’t want to extend the school day longer than what it had to be,” Ptak said. “The sooner they got it done, the sooner they could begin the fun part of the day.”

Leaving room for mental, social breaks

The biggest challenge for many students was dealing with the emotional and mental toll of online learning, such as looking at a screen all day and being socially cut off from friends.

Krissy Procissi has four children, including an eighth-, sixth- and third-grader who attend St. Mary School in Mt. Clemens and a sophomore at Dakota High School in Macomb.

“They truly aren’t phased; they accept this is where life is right now,” Procissi said. “But they definitely missed that communication with their peers, their friends and being in the classroom. The school still had Zoom classroom sessions where they see their friends, and that helps, but it’s hard to make that up online.”

Evan Peterson takes a break while working with his Holy Family classmates on a remote assignment.
Gabriela Brigulio works on an art project. Parents say the daily schedule incorporated time for recreation and “recess.”

To compensate, parents tried to incorporate more social time and backyard “recess” for students, a common trend among families facing information and emotional overload.

“The first week we tried to keep a rigorous schedule, going 9-3 and spreading things out, but then I realized it was too much for them, and for me,” Brigulio said. “I realized how in a normal day of school, so much time is spent in transition between classes, socializing and conversations between students and teachers.”

Elaine Fitzpatrick, mother to Maura and Megan Fitzpatrick, eighth-graders at Holy Family, agreed.

“When dealing with eighth-grade teen girls, friendships are important, and you could tell at the end they were getting all squirmy being home all the time,” Fitzpatrick said.

To break up the routine, parents employed various strategies, from Zoom calls with friends, drives by friends’ houses and socially distant backyard meet-ups. 

“We tried different things to stay sane,” Ptak said. “My daughter had a bit of anxiety at the beginning, but we did well by staying in touch with family, FaceTiming with my mom, my sisters and nephews. We didn’t watch the news to freak them out, but they knew it was all different.”

Looking forward to the fall

Students adapted well to online learning — a product of a generation raised on tablets — but even the most tech-savvy student misses in-person schooling.

“It was a lot of information to take in day to day, but I think I adjusted,” said Max Procissi, who just finished eighth grade at St. Mary School. “I did like getting my assignments to start the week, knowing what I had to get done. But it was boring not being able to hang out with friends, being alone for school all day.

“It was my last year at St. Mary’s, so it was sad it had to end this way,” Procissi continued. “We had a class trip to Cedar Point and our eighth grade graduation that I’m a little sad I missed.”

Everyone is looking forward to classes in a real school building in August — after a nice summer break, that is.

“I’m curious to see what’s going to happen in the fall; it’s still too early to say,” Brigulio said. “This whole experience has reaffirmed our decision that Catholic education was worth the investment. Looking at the resources my kids have access to, I feel so blessed. I know my kids want to go to ‘real school’ in August, but I can’t image this going better than what it did.”