Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Peninsula Catholic High School in Newport News is prepared for the nation’s and state’s drastic measures in response to the coronavirus. Thanks to an online platform on which teachers and students have trained for years, the school switched to virtual classrooms on Wednesday, March 18.

Virginia schools are closed. Businesses are shuttering. Public agencies are either closing or cutting back their services. Gatherings of large crowds are ceasing, and Americans have been asked to voluntarily quarantine themselves for two weeks. PCHS, which educates 260 students from eighth to 12th grades, is responding by having instructors teach classes online. 

“It is important that we are moving forward with the curriculum and engaging learners in a face-to-face platform rather than just simply emailing assignments,” said Janine Franklin, principal. “They are interacting with their teachers live in a digital classroom.”

In 2016, PCHS became the first school in the Hampton Roads area to implement Digital Learning Days (DLD) so that the school would be prepared to educate its students in unforeseen circumstances such as inclement weather, power outages and the coronavirus. In such emergencies, students use their school-issued Chromebooks to log into Canvas, a learning management system used by many colleges, and interact live with teachers and classmates in their digital classrooms, according to a school press release.

Traditional classes stopped on Friday, March 13, and school resumed with virtual classes the next Wednesday. Classes, which teachers conduct from their homes, are during school hours. Students will take two 90-minute classes on Mondays and Wednesdays and a different two 90-minute classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. All four classes will be taught in shorter time blocks on Fridays.

So that students and teachers are familiar with virtual learning in emergencies, DLDs are part of the school calendar. 

“Several times during the year, students are required to attend virtual classes with live teacher-led instruction, participate in group discussions and assignments, and follow up with homework and projects – both independent and collaborative – using Google Suite or other online application,” according to a school press release.

The school has used digital learning during inclement weather but usually for just a day at a time. This will be a team effort as teachers learn from each other, Franklin said.

“We should be able to solve pretty much anything that comes our way,” Franklin said.

While some school districts are limiting online instruction to “review” work completed this year, students at PCHS will continue engaging in new material and being assessed on their understanding so that they will not miss valuable instructional time. This strategy will ensure students are prepared for advanced placement testing and will be able to complete dual enrollment curricula and graduation requirements for the May commencement ceremony, according to the press release.

“It maintains a sense of community because the kids can still see and hear each other and the teacher even though they aren’t in class,” Franklin said. “I think that is a psychological benefit for them. It gives continuity in their instruction and their routine. It makes it as normal as humanly possible.”