When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. last spring, Eric Watts ’97 and his team at the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Department of Catholic Schools were already setting plans in motion to ensure an uninterrupted education for each of their schools’ students.
As chief academic officer, Eric is responsible for the curriculum in the 38 pre-K to grade 8 schools, instruction for the lower schools plus the six Archdiocesan high schools, and student achievement for all Baltimore Catholic schools including the independent schools. Throughout the pandemic, he has played an instrumental role in supporting the schools’ transitions both to distance learning and back to in-person instruction.
“It was important for all of our schools—independent and Archdiocesan—that when the governor made that announcement on a Thursday, not one school would take off a day,” Eric says. “Every single school was open on Monday virtually. Not one missed a beat.”
Two weeks ahead of the impending state lockdown, Eric began developing lessons for the pre-K to 8 teachers to send out to their students remotely. Teachers continued to receive lessons, support, and resources throughout the school year. In May of 2020, a task force was created to address the reopening of in-person instruction. Since then, the work to keep schools open and operating in person has been an ongoing effort. “When schools opened, we were all hands on deck to keep them that way,” Eric says. Once, when a teacher quit shortly after her school’s reopening, Eric stepped in as a substitute for a month until a replacement was found.
Looking to next school year, the Archdiocese has already announced plans for a new all-virtual school opening in the fall, as they project a continued demand for a remote learning option. Currently, 16% of students in Archdiocesan schools are learning remotely. Based on survey reports, Eric and his team expect 1% of families next year will still require a virtual option. However, in order to optimize in-person instruction and allow teachers to focus on their students in the classroom, virtual learners in pre-K to 8 schools will be enrolled in a virtual school, learning together from a live, remote teacher.
While the Archdiocese was able to maintain a continuous flow of instruction throughout distance and hybrid learning, there is no denying that students everywhere have learned less during the pandemic than they would have under normal circumstances. The next challenge will be addressing the learning deficiencies caused by distance learning. “It’s not enough just to open schools, we need to make sure all our kids have mastered all the knowledge and skills that they’re supposed to,” Eric says.
Many schools across the diocese saw an uptick in transfers and applications as a result of their efforts to safely resume in-person learning throughout the pandemic.
“We have to continue to improve the product—the quality of education—otherwise you won’t have anybody that wants to go to your school,” Eric says. “We’re lucky that the status quo isn’t an option in our schools. Not opening in person, that wasn’t an option for us.”
Eric joined Mount Saint Joseph’s Board of Directors last year and looks forward to using his expertise to help his alma mater continue to go above and beyond the status quo.