Q&A with…B.C.'s Head of the Class
For many schools, the transition to online learning amid the pandemic has been a difficult one. But Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell has been embracing technology in the classroom for years.
Governor Murphy declared on March 16 that all schools in New Jersey had to close indefinitely to help “flatten the curve” of coronavirus, leaving many of Bergen County’s administrators and teachers scrambling to figure out their plans for virtual learning. But not Bergen Catholic. The all-boys high school in Oradell has been working via an online learning platform for years to give its students more learning flexibility, which left the staff and administrators more than prepared to tackle virtual learning amid the pandemic.
BERGEN spoke to Dr. Brian Mahoney, president of Bergen Catholic, for more on how the school integrates technology, how they’re keeping things as normal as possible for their students during this unprecedented time and why maintaining a sense of community is more important than ever.
BERGEN: Tell us about Bergen Catholic’s overall virtual learning plans while schools are closed because of COVID-19.
Brian Mahoney: For years, our teachers have been working on online virtual learning platforms. We have been offering classes and programs online for students that have excessive absences due to illness or snow days. When this pandemic happened, we had a roundtable discussion and we discussed information sharing and best practices; I’m proud of us because we’ve been positioned for this from the get-go. Many of our teachers also have certificates or master’s degrees in online learning from The College of St. Elizabeth. We’re saddened by this pandemic but we feel our teachers are prepared.
BERGEN: What platform do you use for online learning?
BM: We use Blackboard Collaborate. It allows the teachers and students to actually see each other and participate not only in chat rooms but also live on video in the class discussions. Many other schools are using Google platforms but they’re more of a post-and-submit. There is lack of interaction with parents and students unless you go into a Google Hangout.
BERGEN: What’s the difference between Blackboard Collaborate and Zoom, which is very popular with schools and businesses right now?
BM: It’s just a different platform that we were trained on—it’s a program we pay for, and our teachers feel comfortable with it. We have had some meetings held through Zoom—college counseling or administration meetings—but we don’t use it as a teaching tool.
BERGEN: BCHS students take notes on iPads and have MacBooks. Has this helped the transition to online learning?
BM: Definitely. For each student, we load all of our reading materials and textbooks onto iPads, so students’ backpacks are very light. The MacBook is used for Word, research and to complete research papers and assignments. Students use turnin.com to submit their assignments and ExamSoft to take quizzes or tests on their iPads, like if they’re on a mission trip, home sick or there is a snow day. This way, learning goes uninterrupted.
BERGEN: But we imagine it’s still been a bit of a transition for the students…
BM: There is a learning curve, without a doubt. Teachers need to make sure they’re preparing their lessons for an online learning platform. Teachers are using their iPads as whiteboards and also just finding new ways to reach students in a non-traditional setting. But before the schools were asked to close, we set up a virtual help desk that made our director of technology available before school started and after it ended [to answer students’ questions]. But we’re keeping things as normal as possible for the students. We run during our normal hours, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. with a 30-minute lunch break. We lead with a morning prayer. Students have to be in dress code—their BC polo shirt, no hats, clean-shaven—so we’re holding them to that accountability to maintain the normalcy. We take attendance and make sure they’re ready to go and sitting at a desk or table, not lying on their beds or on the floor.
BERGEN: Athletics is a major part of student life at BCHS. How have athletes reacted to the sports cancellations as a result of COVID-19?
BM: It’s been hard, especially for the seniors in their spring season. But our coaches have been holding virtual meetings, sending them workouts to keep them moving and staying in contact with the coaches where they can keep their skills going as best they can. But it definitely is hard. The news out of New Jersey is that it’s not getting better and the end [of the pandemic] is not in sight, so we might have some big decisions to make.
BERGEN: What are some unique things Bergen Catholic has been doing to keep the community connected and upbeat during this time?
BM: One of our teachers, Jorge Mascaro, set up a virtual faculty room where the faculty meets half an hour before school starts with a cup of coffee. We want to keep spirits high, so we also had a virtual cocktail party [for staff] at the end of the week. We established on our website a virtual learning page, and anytime we send out a message about online learning it goes right there. We also put the governor’s info on there as well as info from the CDC, and we have a parent and guardian Facebook page. We also started a Crusader Relief Fund, where we ask alumni for donations to help out current BC families that are in need if they’re struggling to pay tuition.
BERGEN: Many schools have canceled spring break—will BCHS still have it?
BM: Yes. Easter break started on Holy Thursday and continues into all of next week, so our administration is putting out a challenge to our students. Since we’re quarantined, we want them to learn something new. We want them to take this time to play an instrument, speak a new language, learn how to cook, learn how to build something. The students will then videotape what they learned and share it with their peers.
BERGEN: Now that we’re almost a month into online learning, what is your advice to other educators on how to make the best of this situation?
BM: That’s a great question. Share information because we don’t all do it 100 percent correctly. Tell us how you’re reaching out to the parents, how you’re keeping spirits high, how you’re sharing information on how you teach. If you’re doing something successful, share it. The [private] schools have a competition in terms of enrollment and things but now is not the time. We should open our doors and share ideas.
BERGEN: Once things return to normal, what do you hope your students take away and learn from their virtual learning experience?
BM: Resiliency. The idea that all schools and all students can learn how to embrace adversity, and learning that this is life. Whether its 9/11 or SARS or coronavirus, we have to be prepared the best we can and learn from it.