Principal, mom knows challenges of virtual education

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | November 4, 2020

Crystal Blahnik, St. Bernard School principal, navigates pandemic’s ups and downs

GREEN BAY — Crystal Blahnik has a unique perspective on the challenges of education during the COVID-19 pandemic. As principal of St. Bernard School, she works with 500 students and families and approximately 40 teachers and staff. As a parent of four children, she knows what parents face in preparing children for virtual learning.

After transitioning to virtual schooling when the pandemic hit last March, then back to school in the fall with safety measures in place, Blahnik said St. Bernard School staff and families were hopeful for a successful 2020-2021 school year. 

Plans changed in late September, when a large number of St. Bernard School students and teachers were quarantined due to outside exposure to the virus, she said. Students returned to virtual learning.

“This really put a strain on our staffing, as well as our families who had to navigate child care, school and their own jobs,” Blahnik told The Compass. “The stressor here is that this is the third major pivot that teachers, staff and families have had to make since early March.”

Crystal and her husband, Todd Blahnik, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Green Bay, have four children: Maria, 18, a college freshman; Lily, 16, a high school sophomore; AJ, 12, a sixth grader; and Clara, 7, a second grader. AJ and Clara attend St. Bernard School.

“As a principal and an educator myself, I have struggled the most with finding a balance between what my family needs and what my school needs,” she said. “With less time to navigate the ever-changing dynamics of school operations, due to the additional time needed to help my own children with their academics at home, it has certainly been a journey of faith.”

Blahnik said her family has faced some of the difficulties other families have faced working and learning from home.

“The biggest challenge at home has been sharing the bandwidth,” she said. “With five to six people online at any given time, we often had to turn off our cameras in order to participate in real-time meetings or classes.”

Her two youngest children require more time with their schooling, she said, and she understands the frustrations parents feel.

“Our son has dyslexia, and while he strives to be independent, there are inevitably things that he needs our help with,” Blahnik said. “Our daughter, Clara, who has just recently become an independent reader, also needs our full and undivided attention.”

These experiences give her empathy for young teachers at St. Bernard, she said.

“When I have a teacher struggling to balance her infant and her classroom students, I want to help support and find ways to address her pressure points,” she said. “I don’t have an infant, but I do know how it feels to be pulled in two directions where you are needed equally. The feeling of being unable to fully give what is needed is certainly a reality.” 

As a principal, Blahnik points to two factors that have complicated virtual learning. One has been “the divergence of views in regards to what families and teachers desire for their children.”

“I have found that there are just as many families passionate about returning to five days a week as there are families who believe we should not be in school at all,” she said. “As a school administrator it is frustrating because, by nature, we are problem solvers and want to be solution oriented. These days, however, solutions are not as clear or as easy to come by.”

Another challenge has been the hurdles students face learning at home. “While we have provided a great number of resources for any family who has needed them, these do not supplement things that we cannot change, such as family work schedules, subpar access to the internet, siblings who are expected to help younger siblings as well as run the household and many other unseen challenges in families,” she said.

Blahnik likens the unexpected turns forced by the pandemic to riding on a swing: “lots of highs and lows, but not much steady rhythm.”

St. Bernard School transitioned to a hybrid model on Nov. 2, said Blahnik.

“Essentially, every homeroom was split into two, with one-half coming on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other half attending on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” she said. “The entire student body attends virtual programming on Friday mornings.”

Blahnik points to a passage from Matthew’s Gospel for defining the role of Catholic schools: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” 

“I truly believe that face-to-face learning is where our joy, meaning and purpose lay as Catholic schools,” she said. “I believe while we will make it through this crazy and unique time, it will certainly bolster our desire as a community to recommit to our Catholic school communities.”

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(Sam Lucero | The Compass)

How is your family learning at home? Send us photos

COVID-19 has changed everyone’s lives. This is especially true for families when it comes to at-home education and online learning. Whether it’s virtual school, online religious education, home-schooling, taking a family adventure on the web, reading virtual library books, watching Mass together at home or a combination of all of these, families are rising to the challenge of new ways of learning.

The Compass wants to share those virtual experiences. Take a picture of your family learning together, of children at virtual school or of everyone sharing religious lessons online. We’ll pick some photos to share in print and others for posting online in a special photo album on our Facebook page at facebook.com/TheCompassNews

Stay connected with us and with other families through photos. Email your photos to us at [email protected].

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