Cathy Kollars, here in a St. Clare classroom, teaches religion to sixth, seventh and eighth graders at the school in Southwest Portland. She’s excited about the autumn term, having discovered methods that work for distance learning last spring. (Courtesy Cathy Kollars)
Cathy Kollars, here in a St. Clare classroom, teaches religion to sixth, seventh and eighth graders at the school in Southwest Portland. She’s excited about the autumn term, having discovered methods that work for distance learning last spring. (Courtesy Cathy Kollars)
Teaching religion online has plenty of obvious drawbacks.

Cathy Kollars, who teaches religion to middle school students at St. Clare School in Southwest Portland, described how some of her students live out their faith as altar servers, readers or in the music ministry. “A lot of them miss that,” she said.

Still, Kollars has found unexpected benefits in teaching online.

The online experience, for instance, seems to give less opinionated students a chance to speak out. Last spring she tried putting out two or three questions to her religion classes. The youths all answered the questions on shared text documents, each student identifying themselves through initials or a number. Then she asked every student to comment on a couple of their peers’ answers.

The process resulted in everyone practicing how to give input. In the classroom, most of the students would have let a handful of their number do most of the talking. “This way, everybody got in,” Kollars said.

While no one would have chosen distance religion classes this fall, Kollars is optimistic. “I feel good about the structure we’ve created,” she said.

Kelli Clark, principal of St. Ignatius School in Southeast Portland, said the archdiocese’s schools department was a great help in developing the online Catholic education structure at St. Ignatius — in part because the archdiocesan guidelines meant she could be certain that St. Ignatius was in line with other Catholic schools.

Like Kollars, Clark sees an upside to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

“There’s the opportunity for the community to rise together in faith,” she said. “We’re maintaining service projects, with children writing to first responders and the homebound. There are many opportunities for students to be part of easing the suffering of others during this time.”

Feedback from parents was also critical. “We really took feedback from parents seriously,” Clark said. “They wanted more structure to our days, and more time with teachers in the virtual world.”

Classes pray daily at St. Ignatius, St. Clare and every other archdiocesan school. That is part of the school department’s guidelines, part of forming a Catholic identity in their students. Participating in acts of service and attending livestreamed Masses are also part of every school’s plan.

Cathy Kollars’ husband, Randy Kollars, is also a longtime Catholic religion teacher — at St. Mary’s Academy. He describes the challenge of teaching religion online as one of relationship. “So much of faith formation is in the relational experiences, the way we tell faith stories, the way we embellish and give examples,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to do when we miss seeing the feedback.”

An added complication for high school religion teachers is that older students are doing more complex processing of information. “We still impart content, but it’s more about ‘What does that mean?’”

He agrees with his wife that last spring had many lessons on how to teach online. “I felt good by the end of the year,” he said.

He described meaningful online discussions about what students believed about God, Jesus and humanity — and what their beliefs were based upon.

“So much of our belief systems we haven’t given much thought to,” Randy Kollars said.

When his ninth grade students submitted personal creeds — a statement on who they are and their faith — Randy Kollars said he found the writings to be as profound as in years past. “It reassured me that all wasn’t lost. They were all thinking.”