It will be a Catholic Education Sunday like no other.
Typically, the first Sunday in November marks a time for us to celebrate the gift of Catholic education in Alberta. This year it will be on Nov. 8. However, this year is anything but typical. COVID-19 has changed everything, from the front of the classroom to the seat of a (possibly empty) desk.
In the Calgary Catholic School District alone, 76 students and six staff members have confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 2,925 students and 207 staff were in isolation as of Oct. 28. Just St. Francis High School alone had 13 students and one teacher confirmed as COVID-positive.
Grandin Media asked Grade 11 student Katelin Henri and Nicole Seneviratne, a teacher and chaplain at St. Francis high school, to reflect on the many changes and the lessons of COVID-19.
“This pandemic has taught us that life is so fragile, that things can change in an instant,” Seneviratne said. “There is suffering in life, sometimes we forget when things are going so well. But our faith gives us that opportunity to understand that there is meaning and purpose to suffering.
“As a Catholic educator, we can offer that hope to us. We can say ‘You know, God doesn’t waver’ so while things can change, God’s love for us doesn’t change. And that’s always going to remain a constant.”
In the midst of the pandemic, supporters – particularly GrACE (Grateful Advocates for Catholic Education) – continue to share ideas, stories, resources and successes. Our school communities will continue to stay connected, said Bonnie Anniccharico, executive director of GrACE.
Seneviratne and Henri, teacher and student, agree the theme of Catholic Education Sunday this year —”Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength” — is fitting amid a pandemic.
“We’re taught that God has a plan and you’ve just got to trust that He knows what he’s doing,” said Henri, 16, who attends St. Francis High School in Calgary. “Being Catholic gives lots of hope, especially in times of pandemic, because you need something to hold onto, to know that you’ll get through all right.
Catholic education “means a lot to me personally because I’m surrounding myself with people who have the same values as me, so I can relate to them more. It makes it easier to make friends.”
Unlike other districts, there is no hybrid between online and in-person learning in the Calgary Catholic School District. Other than a brief time at the beginning of the pandemic, almost all students are in class for instruction unless they are quarantined because of COVID-19.
“It was hard to transition to online when we had to do that, that was really tough,” Seneviratne said.
“I think what’s tough now that we’re back, and we’re trying to do ‘business as usual,’ is the understanding that it can change at any moment and you may in fact have to transition from a classroom to working from home, and that’s not easy.”
Henri said anxiety levels depend on how worried their parents are about COVID-19, and the size of a student’s circle of friends.
“I’ve seen some super huge Grade 12 friend groups and I can tell they really miss their friends, because they have to social distance while they eat lunch. You’re not allowed to be really close in a classroom and eat lunch. You have to have a mask on if you’re going to be that close together, so it’s kind of hard.”
Henri was philosophical about the impact of COVID-19.
“If life is constantly happy all the time, then you’ll never know when you’re in a truly miracle moment. You’re going to have to endure some things that aren’t always fun. The toughest part has been not being able to see the people you really want to see.”
At first it was the separation from her friends; now it’s the distance from her grandparents and extended family. Others students feel that too, and teachers notice it.
“We have seen a lot of students feeling quite isolated,” Seneviratne said. “They really feel like they’re missing out – all the fun things that we would do. We would have pep rallies. We would have a lot of sports. And they’re done. The school experience isn’t enriched by these things. We can see that the kids are really missing that.”
That also applies to the permeation of the faith. St. Francis is a big school with more than 1,500 students and as many as 500 in each grade. As chaplain, Seneviratne has been recording liturgies and distributing them to the 65 teachers. More teachers are involved in the liturgy in each of their classrooms, which she hopes will continue after the pandemic ends.
“It is a lot of screen time and watching, and missing that human connection,” Seneviratne said. “One thing however is that every teacher now opens up those videos and has an opportunity to share that with their class, in maybe a more intimate way than if we’re 500 kids in a church.
Nevertheless “it doesn’t have the same effect as being together, with each other, in celebration of our faith. It definitely doesn’t have the same feel,” she said.
“We can’t gather as a group, and as we know as Catholics, our community is where we get our strength from, from in gathering, from partaking of the Eucharist. Not being able to do that with the students is something we’re missing.”
Katelin Henri comes a strong, faith-filled family. However, she’s a bit of an outlier — even in a Catholic school like St. Francis.
“I wouldn’t say that because we’re a Catholic school that’s the norm,” Seneviratne said. “But I do think that there are lot of kids who have, in their heart, an understanding that they are children of God.
“Just exactly what does that mean and how far do they look into that, probably varies. I do think that most kids actually get a lot out of the religion classes and they enjoy them,” she said. “Kids who don’t regularly attend church, and haven’t spent a lot of time processing their faith, will tell of us that they enjoy the classes and they may learn something … I think there’s a seed there for everyone.”
Catholic education is deeply ingrained in Seneviratne’s family. Her husband and her sister-in-law are teachers, and her older daughter is studying education at the University of Calgary, and the youngest attends a Catholic high school.
A lesson of COVID-19, and its restrictions, is that faith and hope remain without limit.
“The hope,” Seneviratne said, “is that as we continue, and things get better, that we can reflect on that and say ‘Wow, gee — life can change so quickly — but I have that faith in God and our hope, from our faith, that I can weather the next storm. I weathered this one and I can weather the next one, because I’m never alone.”
Katelin Henri said COVID-19 has strengthened her faith, starting with more time to reflect and to be mindful of others, from the wearing of masks, to the loneliness of isolation.
“I definitely think that COVID had that positive effect on people. Being mindful is a really big factor because if you’re not wearing a mask you could endanger someone else. And also being thankful for what you had before. Yes it’s really unfortunate, but I think that we’ll come out better from it.”
“I think sometimes we tend to be quite narcissistic,” Seneviratne added. “Now we realize ‘OK, if I don’t take care here, it might harm somebody else and then maybe I can’t see my grandparents.’”
“I think it’s also taught us a lot about how important human connection is, and how it’s unhealthy for us to be isolated. Human connection is the most important thing. That is so much of what’s come out of this pandemic — we need each other.”