What is essential Amid COVID-19, the mission of Saint Ignatius continues

story by Connor Walters '09 for the Spring 2020 issue of Saint Ignatius Magazine

By the time you read this story, well, it’s hard to say what will have happened. We can’t say whether you’ll be back at work, or if your summer vacation plans are still a possibility, or even if students have finished out spring semester on campus. An unprecedented pandemic called COVID-19 has interrupted everything and created uncertainty in countless facets of our lives.

Uncertainty. It can be scary, unsettling, and stressful. Everyone has felt it. Our students have spent months wondering if their play, or their sport, or their graduation ceremony will happen. Families know it, too, from the loss of jobs to extended periods of physical distance from loved ones. Even our elected officials can’t quite say when things will return to normal—or what our new normal might be.

By this point, we all know this uncertainty quite intimately. But this is not a story about uncertainty. It is about what is essential.

The term ‘essential’ has become firsthand language for which businesses can stay open, who should travel, or which personnel are needed to be on the front lines of services like hospitals, unemployment agencies and grocery stores. At a deeper level, perhaps, we might have learned what is essential in our own lives. Sure, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it’s true that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone, but the answer comes from the cherished book “The Little Prince,” which says, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

At Saint Ignatius, the work of forming young men in mind, body and spirit so that they can discern what God wants from them is essential. The circumstances of this formation may have changed, but the mission remains the same. It is always time to live and work for the greater glory of God.

During an uncertain time unlike any other in human history, this is how that essential mission continued at Saint Ignatius.

One important thing

To hear Principal Dan Bradesca ’88 talk about his approach to the coronavirus crisis is to understand the true spirit of Jesuit leadership. Even in his final months as principal, before returning full-time to the English department next year, the veteran administrator relied on his own faith and experience to guide decision-making.

“It’s just like the Mary and Martha gospel story,” he says. “I’m challenging all of us to be Marys in this frantic Martha world right now. There are so many temptations to run around like Martha; we’re worried about content and this and that. But the example is Mary who is at the feet of the Savior and focusing on one very important thing. We need to strip away all the artifice and focus on that one most important thing.”

In his own way, Bradesca describes what is essential—care for the students, concern for teachers working hard to do their job from home, and the safety and health of all in the community. Rather than rush any decision-making, he and his team of assistant principals and teachers took an intentional approach.

“To react to something like this is to stop immediately. It’s like the Examen,” Bradesca says. “I train myself to stop and figure out what it is I’m going to be experiencing. You need to act promptly but not in a hurry.”

Teachers testing out how to conduct a class via Zoom before the start of distance learning.

An online learning protocol had long been in the works before the situation arose. As early as mid-February, Bradesca and his team started giving it more shape and planning out how to work with teachers on implementation. Bradesca conferred with his counterparts at other Jesuit schools. Beyond just the sharing of various curricula, they had other equally important concerns.

“I relied on Tom Beach and Roger Stewart and Brian Martin and we worked together to make sure that we were accounting for not just the academic content but also for the emotional and spiritual lives of the kids and teachers,” Bradesca says. “We had to make sure those things were kept intact.”

Fine arts teacher and educational technologist Jon Jarc ’93 was one of those key role-players. Beyond having a plan in place, Jarc worked through how to make sure every student and teacher had access to the resources to be part of that plan.

“The first thing we talked about was tools that everybody knows and can use, and then one other important thing was equity,” he says. “We have some students that have a lot of advantages in technology and internet access; we wanted to make sure that everybody had access to the internet and everybody had access to a laptop, not just a mobile phone. Once we were sure we knew what the tools were that we were going to use, we started training faculty on this really limited set of tools, at least to start.”

Students and teachers who needed a computer, or even a hotspot for internet access, could pick one up from the library. Some AP Studio Art students made a stop to pick up paints and easels and other supplies for completing their portfolios. Thanks to some conveniences in scheduling, teachers had a few days for in-person training on campus. While the transition of assignments, tests and video lectures to the internet would be a significant change, the leadership team also recognized the life changes that could complicate learning in students’ homes.

Picking up supplies for completing AP Studio Art portfolios.

“We have to keep in mind that kids have siblings and parents, and a lot of families that maybe have one computer and multiple kids that need to use that computer throughout the day,” says Jarc. “We couldn’t reasonably expect kids to be online for six or seven hours. We hoped that whatever we had assigned to them would be able to be done in a compressed environment. Even if you’re running a video lecture or doing a quiz you have to remember that as a teacher all the nuts and bolts of a classroom are not a factor anymore.”

At this point, it’s worth stopping to consider what really makes a Jesuit school. Among our network of schools, the phrase "a way of proceeding" is often used to identify the whos and hows and whys of this treasured tradition of education. In other words, it's what makes Jesuit education special. But it's not just a blueprint.

The Jesuit and professor of church history John W. O'Malley writes, "None of them, none of us, can be reduced to a formula. The confluence of these unique workings of grace constitutes a large part of the richness of Catholicism, which is thus more than a catechism of teachings and more than a moral code." In a similar way, Saint Ignatius High School can't be reduced to a formula; it is more than a school building, textbooks and school spirit.

What Bradesca and Jarc and teachers and students had to find was a new way of proceeding. Spread physically apart throughout northeast Ohio but connected through email, phone calls and the internet, a Saint Ignatius education remained available and essential to every one of the sons of this famed Alma Mater.

Proceeding with patience and persistence

This new way of proceeding—what did it look like? The cover of this magazine should provide some insight, as everyone grew accustomed to face-to-face communication in the frame of the video chat.

Beyond the surface, however, it manifested itself in perhaps some of the most inventive teaching and learning the Ignatius community has ever experienced. On the teacher side, although there were uncertainties and hesitations, instruction and engagement carried the day.

“There was a tremendous amount of resiliency and realism,” Jarc says. “It wasn’t like Dan and I were saying, ‘There’s nothing happening in the world and we’re operating business as usual.’ One of the great things about our faculty is that they were like, ‘OK, this is what we’ve gotta do now.’”

Veteran Math teacher Jean Antonelli Hon. '19 recording a lesson for her students.

That’s not to say everything went perfectly. Teachers and students had to get on the same page about where assignments would be posted, how to submit them, and the etiquette of Zoom (Mute your microphone!). Furthermore, the learning management system PowerSchool endured outages and slow-downs as tens of thousands of people across the country flooded it with activity.

And yet, with patience and persistence, everyone muddled through the early days until a routine could be established.

“My teachers have made and are continuing to make efforts to clear the confusion and to make this experience as smooth as possible,” says junior Matthew McKenna. “Being out of a classroom setting and having the freedom to complete work at my discretion is nice, but it can make it very difficult to keep my days productive, orderly, and structured.”

Depending on the teacher and subject, academic instruction included just about every tool teachers had available to them, from daily “live” lessons, to recorded video lectures or labs, to reading assignments and papers, worksheets, and subject-specific software activities. If there was a creative way to help students learn, teachers explored it. McKenna praised the effort from his English teacher, Terra Caputo, PhD, in assisting students with the transition.

“From the start, Dr. Caputo was very helpful,” he says. “She hosted a Zoom conference during which she laid out the schedule for us in a very organized way; she kept us updated about the changes due to the virus, especially those regarding the AP exams, and she even made a Google document that diagrammed the next few weeks, listed her office hours, and dictated all that was expected of us.”

Matthew McKenna '21 at his work station at home.

The magic of being in the classroom with our teachers was not entirely lost in the process, though. Themselves masters of connecting with students, many teachers found unique ways to enliven online lessons—or even take liberties with the dress code.

“It was fun to see guys in sweats and t-shirts hanging out at home, with the occasional mom doing a walk-through or giving a line from off-screen,” wrote Theology teacher Tom Healey ’77. “One of the highlights was playing virtual catch with Jack O’Rourke ’20. Another was seeing the new puppy of Matthew McLaughlin ’20 – a cute little guy named Rudy."

Spanish teacher Sara Sebring organized a speaker series, with dozens of her students joining into six different conference calls featuring a variety of Spanish speakers, including alumni Brian Sabath ’17 and Anthony Delsanter ’18. Math teacher Johnny Rowell ’11 took a break from geometry and algebra one day to teach his students the fine art of baking bread.

Teachers held virtual office hours, a period of time when students could jump on a video chat and ask a question, or submit questions via a Google Doc and have them answered in real-time. Counselors and teachers exhausted all measures to check in with students from whom they might not have heard, working to keep all students connected.

“We’re taking a huge leap with 100 teachers that are in a lot of different degrees of experience and ability and we asked them to do an extraordinary thing, and we’re all in it together,” says Jarc. “We’re doing our best to try and continue learning. We’re trying to continue providing families the opportunity to go to Saint Ignatius for the next couple of weeks.”

From the get-go in his communication with the faculty and families, Bradesca’s goal was to be realistic and honest about the reality of the situation and the expectations for working through the crisis.

“The way I’ve tried to operate is to follow [former Saint Ignatius President] Fr. Bill Murphy’s mantra, which is tell the truth, tell it first, and tell it often,” he says. “Telling people off the bat that this is difficult, to not think that things are going to be the same. We have to adapt and be flexible. Expect great difference and be comfortable with that. It’s about the kids’ needs and not our own personal desires.”

The community would rise to the challenge of meeting those needs.

Guided by our faith

It wasn’t long after the start of online classes that some shared feelings emerged: I miss being at school. I wish I could be with my friends. I’m bored, stressed, anxious, annoyed—you get the idea.

As a school, the response to these feelings was immediate and expansive—and it all began with faith.

Starting on March 16, the Jesuit community began celebrating weekday Masses in St. Mary of the Assumption Chapel, streamed live online for all to watch. Then, a Sunday Mass was added. The monthly Taizé prayer service continued. Daily Examens were broadcast. The result was that, at least a dozen times each week, any person anywhere could tune in to the Saint Ignatius Broadcast Network for spiritual nourishment and inspiring messages. These continued throughout Holy Week, as the Jesuits celebrated the services as a brotherhood, alone in the chapel.

Thousands of people tuned in to celebrate the Eucharist, or participate in Adoration, or take time to ask God for the graces needed to endure throughout this period of separation. The Jesuits—the men whose mission and vows have animated the life of the school for over 130 years—did what they do best: They led with their faith.

Additionally, students, teachers and parents were invited to focus on their health and wellbeing. Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning AJ Short ’09 provided a variety of online yoga classes for everyone, sometimes with more than 80 people in attendance. The counseling staff of Saint Ignatius sent regular emails with tips for managing workload, finding motivation and best practices for working from home. Families who needed assistance putting food on the table were provided with weekly meal supplies by the Campus Dining staff.

Virtual yoga was available to students, teachers, staff and parents.

Student activities continued to gather, even if it was just for time to socialize. Groups including the Science Olympiad, the Christian Action Team, and the Notre Dame Club made time for regular meetings over Zoom. The Harlequins, who missed debuting their spring musical Mamma Mia! by just a couple weeks, remained in communication as they postponed the highly anticipated show.

Sports teams fielded the uncertainty with unquestionable dedication and determination, training and meeting virtually as they awaited news of their winter tournaments or spring seasons.

Even the service side of the school provided an outlet for students. Members of the Friends with L’Arche wrote letters to the men and women they would normally visit. Students who participate in Arrupe after-school programs served as tutors and mentors to children via Zoom calls. A small team of adults ensured that the Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry to the Homeless visited its 120 friends on Sunday nights, continuing a streak of more than 900 consecutive weeks.

On Holy Thursday, Theology teacher and co-moderator of the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry Dan Baron made the trip out to Potter’s Field while the rest of the student pallbearer leaders gathered virtually to pray for all the dead, especially those the ministry has served and those who lost their lives to the virus.

Theology teacher Dan Baron represented the 500-member Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry at Potter's Field on Holy Thursday.

The fact that all of this change and loss and fear—and hope—began during Lent and continued through the holiest week of the year was not lost on Bradesca.

“There’s no coincidence that we’re experiencing this, the height of it, as we approach Holy Week,” he says. “All this is doing is magnifying how we’re supposed to be operating and orienting our faith life. A.M.D.G. is what we’re pointing at. In this instance, we’re throwing out all of the prescribed formula and we’re discerning down to the grain of sand of what is most essential.”

One day we will look back

This article, and the snapshots included herein, are mere glimpses of the work and ministry of Saint Ignatius High School as it appeared during the unforgettable spring of 2020. So much of the essential things that happened, indeed, were invisible to most of the world. Each student will have his own version of what he learned, who impacted him, and how his life was changed during this time. So, too, will the teachers, staff, and families.

Bradesca says that the memories from this time and the lessons learned will shape Saint Ignatius High School long into the future.

“Grace is afoot,” he says. “We have our Vision ’30 strategic planning occurring simultaneously with this crisis, and I think that this crisis informs Vision 30’s objectives even more than imaginable. What we have found out in this crisis moment is a lot more about where we can focus on helping people more than we ever thought possible before. This kind of crisis lets us see the cracks in our own humanity.”

Years from now, when people ask what Saint Ignatius was like during the coronavirus, the answer will be simple: We cared for people. We found strength in our faith. We focused on giving our students, and really all in our community, the tools to begin to understand what God wants from them.

The mission continued. It was essential.

Created By
Connor Walters