A NEW FRONTIER - How COVID-19 inspired the launch of BC's CARE for THE 400 online learning program

By Noell Barnidge
On March 18, Benedictine Military School launched its online learning program CARE for THE 400 (Cadets Accessing Remotely for Education), in response to COVID-19, an infectious disease that is a pandemic.

It is the academic equivalent to winning a state championship, an accomplishment to which Benedictine Military School has become accustomed.

“We went from a traditional school that was founded in 1902 to a completely online platform in a little over a week,” BC Information Technology Manager Trey Dowdy said.

To ensure the safety and well-being of its Cadets and employees, BC Headmaster Fr. Frank Ziemkiewicz, O.S.B., suspended all school activities and closed the campus on Seawright Drive. That day, Cadets began learning online from their homes as BC’s dedicated faculty and staff were busy serving them.

Social distancing. Distance learning. None of that was on BC’s radar when the 2019-20 school year began. But, alas, COVID-19 was a threat. People were dying. First in China, then in Italy and other countries. BC Principal Jacob Horne, a former world history teacher at BC, watched media reports as the death toll increased and the number of people infected with the virus surged. On the night of Feb. 25, Horne sent a text message to BC Director of Curriculum Peter Newman about COVID-19 that read, “I know it’s not hit the United States yet but we need to start getting ready and talking about this craziness with Coronavirus.”

In COVID-19, BC faced a challenge, a race against the calendar. And the school whose motto is “Forward, Always Forward” bravely marched into the unknown.

“I have a friend who is a principal in Bahrain,” Horne said. “And I’m, obviously as a former world history teacher, I enjoy watching international media, usually more so than American media, just because it gives you more of a glimpse into what’s going on in the world, especially now with the way (COVID-19) has spread from Asia over, has given us time.

“So when it finally hit Asia and the Middle East, I knew I had a colleague that I could call upon. I had seen on her social media that they were closing for two weeks at that time and so I called her. I probably had about a 40-minute or more conversation with her and we just talked about ‘What were they doing? What was the country of Bahrain doing? How are their kids doing? What are their plans on modes of instruction and assessment?’ We just started talking through all of the logistics of what they were going through and, fortunately, that started my mind going and so that’s why I reached out to Peter and said ‘It’s not here yet but I’ve got some information as we start to think about this.’”

Horne said his friend’s school in Bahrain was as well-prepared as it could possibly be to respond to COVID-19.

“If you fast-forward up to today, her school has now been recognized for how well they have adapted and gone into the online program because Bahrain has ended up closing down for, I think, the next four weeks as well,” he said. “By the time I talked to her, they had been about two weeks into their closing. And so, again, we were just talking about ‘What’s it look like?’ She was just sitting there in her living room while I’m talking to her. Obviously, so were many of their teachers. They would allow teachers to come in (to the school) when they needed but not large groups. That got my mind thinking, ‘How would we do it? How would it look at BC?’”

On Feb. 25, Horne and other BC administrators were in Naples, Fla., attending a Partners in Mission conference for Catholic school leaders, when he texted Newman. “I told Peter in my text message to put (COVID-19) on the (BC Academic Department) Chair agenda,” Horne said. “And my first conversation with the Chairs is ‘Hey, this may be far out. It might not even happen. But you need to go ahead and put out to your people (teachers) now, ‘How would you do this?' I’m a big believer in distributed leadership, which is basically the chain-of-command structure of the military. I just said, ‘Each of you have your own specific subjects, and I want to empower each of you to teach it to the degree that you need to, and not micromanage everything you’re doing. So get together as a department and talk.”

As COVID-19 cases spread from China through Italy and Europe, and then to the U.S., Horne said “every week’s Department Chair meeting got more and more frank. We talked about this a couple of weeks ago and it was pie-in-the-sky, and now it’s in California. It’s only one case so maybe it won’t come here.’ These are the way I start department meetings. I lay out what I see. What, not only am I taking in as far as information, but kind of my initial assessment of how we could do blank. In this case it was online learning. And then what starts to happen is that kind of sparks the conversation and people start bringing up their own thoughts. ‘Well what about this? What about that? How are we going to do this? How do we do that? Well, that won’t work because of this."

Horne deflects praise for BC’s effort to continue educating despite the pandemic. Instead, he credits BC’s Academic Department Chairs, especially Newman and BC Theology Department Chair Kevin Knight, as well as Dowdy and BC Director of Operations Barb Evans.

“In these department meetings, we have so much trust within each other that there’s no conversation that goes unsaid,” Horne said. “That’s really what it’s meant to do. I’m bringing together the people who are my leaders within the school, many of which who have expertise in so many different areas and former professions like LTC (Stephen) Suhr. And I trust them. That’s what you have to do. There’s no such thing as a one-person leader. It’s a failed philosophy. The best leaders have the best people around them, and you’re just part of the equation. You’re kind of the facilitator. You may be the face, the voice of the organization, but you have to have buy-in and perspective. It would be ridiculous for a principal to make all of the decisions, not being in the classroom. And so what started happening was we just started working our way through.

“We’re going to use myBC,” Horne said of BC’s new website, which launched at the start of the school year. “I’m a big believer in crawl-walk-run, which is also used in military protocol. We talked about ‘What does crawl look like?’ And what crawl looks like is what we did last week, which was kind of the most simplistic online education, which is you put up some assignments, you put up some resources for those assignments to help, and the kids go. And we also scaled back the academics to exclude the electives the first week so kids weren’t overwhelmed.”

Horne said his principal friend in Bahrain invited him to join a private Facebook group for international educators affected by COVID-19.

“And what I saw across Asia, as it started moving into the Middle East and Europe, was that parents were quickly getting overwhelmed because, in addition to their job, now they’re having to become educators and they’re not trained educators. The reason we cut back and did a crawl-walk-run and only did academics the first week was to not overwhelm the boys, for many of whom this is their first time having an online environment, but also the parents.”

On March 22, BC’s Academic Department Chairs met with Horne again for a one-hour meeting using Zoom so they could prepare for this week.

“This week, we’re either crawling faster or starting the ‘walk,’ which is we’ve added in all of the electives now,” Horne said. “So boys are having assignments from all eight courses every day. And the ‘run’ part of it is likely what we will be starting next week or two weeks from now, and that’s going to look like a lot more online instruction. It’s going to have face-to-face Zoom meetings where you’ll have teachers checking in and just saying, ‘Hey guys, miss you. Hope you’re well. Any problems this past week? Any problems this coming week? Here’s what you’re going to see on myBC. Here’s the assignments. This is when it’s due.’ A simple check-in.

“And some teachers may want to use it to instruct,” Horne continued. “And really what it’s meant to do. Zoom meetings are meant to facilitate the human element. One of the international broadcasts I watched was a European education psychologist and what they were reporting was that students, young people, just like every human being, is naturally social. We want to be around other humans. That’s our built purpose. We’re social animals. She was just saying how online instruction without that fixed element does not feed that mental, social health element that kids get in school. That’s why we decided we’re going to have a face-to-face element because it’s that important that it’s as close to the day-to-day operations where you would see your teacher, you’d see your peers, you’d hear your peers. That’s why it’s important to add that additional element to online instruction because even though we’re not in school, there’s still that natural human element of desire for sociability.”

By all accounts, CARE for THE 400 is working well thus far. That has helped many, especially seniors, who are dealing with the emotional disappointment of having their athletic games, club activities and other events postponed (and, hopefully, not canceled).

“Benedictine’s switch to myBC this year has made the transition to online learning pretty easy," said BC senior Andrew Peters, who will attend the University of Notre Dame in the fall. "We have a list of assignments and their deadlines, and get notifications from our teachers on our phones whenever there is an important announcement. My peers and I have been messaging each other whenever we have any questions, and we have not encountered any major issues. It is great that even during this difficult time we are still able to learn a lot each day and keeping moving forward, always forward!"

Said Dowdy, “I’m very proud to be a part of this. Just to think that a traditional school can transition to an online learning management system, and to have the students respond positively. From the feedback I’m seeing from administrators and teachers and parents, the students are seeming to really embrace the online learning and are really taking an active part in the success of it.”

Locally and regionally, perhaps even nationally, BC is on the forefront of online instruction in spite of COVID-19.

“We are,” Horne said. “I know from talking with educators at other schools that we are. Just this morning, I got a text message from (a university) saying that they’re going to start online instruction. I think it’s on the 29th. When you start thinking about, ‘Well, wait a minute, BC’s ahead of a major research university?’ Some colleges are still struggling with adapting to online instruction.”

Horne said he has embraced a slogan that Newman introduced which applies to CARE for THE 400 and the current situation.

“Originally, my term was ‘Less is more,’” Horne said. “Where a lot of schools make mistakes is they have basically said ‘You’re expected to do the same things as if you were in school.’ And that, in my opinion, is not the right philosophy because less is more. The students are going through their own shock that we as adults are and are not going through. Peter was not wild about ‘Less is more.’ He had the quote, and I thought this was pretty good, ‘Participation and patience over perfection.’ As well as the educational community has tried to change on a dime as quickly as possible for our kids, it can’t be about perfection right now. It’s got to be about participation and patience. We’ve got to get you involved. We’ve got to get you online. We’ve got to make sure you’ve got Internet, you’ve got a device to be able to complete your assignments.

“And it’s about patience,” Horne continued. “Kids are going through their own struggles due to socioeconomic status, due to family dynamics. Parents are as well. Some families may have three kids at three different schools and one (electronic) device. So this idea that, some schools I’ve seen have said, ‘Second period will be at this time and if you missed it, you’re going to be marked absent.’ They’re not taking in every possible variable that a kid and a family could be facing. They’re thinking about themselves as a school. And we don’t do that. BC cares about the community and tries to consider what our kids and families are going through. That’s what the whole participation and patience is about. We’re going to be patient with kids as they struggle. We hope that families are patient with us as we continue to push the envelope with online learning. And it’s not about perfection. Because this is not a perfect situation. If anything, it’s a perfect storm.”

"Forward, always forward, everywhere forward! We must not be held back by debts, bad years or by difficulties of the times. Man's adversity is God's opportunity." - Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B.