By Larissa I. López

The irruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly posed great challenges in the realm of education for the academic year 2020-2021.

In the last few months, the health emergency has revolutionized our way of life in the personal, family, and work as well as educational ambits. The dynamic of our routines and relations have been essentially transformed (distancing, hand washing, use of masks . . . ) and they have been mediated through devices and platforms.

To speak about the impact of these changes in the educational field and to learn how these institutions have addressed it, Zenit talked with Father Javier Maria Prades Lopez, Rector of the Saint Damasus Ecclesiastical University (UESD) in Madrid, Spain.

The Rector is a priest of the Madrid diocese, ordained on March 14, 1987. With a Licentiate in Law from the Autonomous University of Madrid (1982) and a Doctorate in Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome (1991), he is a Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Damasus University.

Saint Damasus Ecclesiastical University

 It is a University of social initiative created by the Archdiocese of Madrid. Erected by the Holy See, it enjoys canonical juridical personality and is governed by the Church’s legislation.

Located in Madrid de los Austrias, the UESD is at the service of a new concept of intellectual work and scientific research. It is the only Ecclesiastical University in the Spanish-speaking realm dedicated to the Sciences promoted by the Church (Theology, Canon Law, Philosophy, Christian and Classic Literature, and Religious Sciences).

Here is the unabridged interview with Father Prades.

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–Q: How did Saint Damasus University address the advent of the pandemic? How did it and its students adapt to the lockdown?

–Father Prades: The pandemic irrupted on Madrid and in Spain with a speed and profundity that no one had foreseen. Its consequences went beyond what was thought could happen at every moment, until a state of alarm arrived and a months-long confinement.

We cannot forget the profound suffering of the Spanish society in those months, with tens of thousands of dead and generalized disconcert. Now we also continue to suffer the very grave consequences for health, work human and social relations. We are really being put to the test.

The measures the UESD adopted offered a response to the emergency as fast as possible using the technological resources and staff of the University. I qualify it as admirable because an unimagined situation was addressed.

In the adaptation of online teaching, the effort of the University community as a whole resulted in being able to end the academic year satisfactorily.

–Q: The preparation for this new academic year had to take into account the challenges posed by the new COVID-19 health emergency. What was the preparation for the beginning of the academic year in the previous months? What were the main novelties that had to be incorporated?

–Father Prades: Taken into account in planning the new academic year was the experience acquired in the previous months regarding the adaptation of students, professors, administrative and services personnel (PAS) to the situation. It was also decided that, if the pandemic lasted longer, the University’s computer infrastructure had to be improved.

In addition, work was done on a system of organization and shift rotations that would make possible the use of the computer infrastructure.

–Q: The new academic year was opened last September 6. Tell us about the experience of a ceremony of this type via streaming.

Father Prades: The ceremony on the 6th was held in a twofold way: with presence and via streaming. With the presence of some Ecclesiastical and Academic Authorities and of members of the University’s Senate, while the rest of the University community followed the ceremony through a videoconference.

It’s a strange impression, very different from the usual, which we hope can be surmounted as soon as possible to be able to hold the ceremonies with the physical presence of all. On the other hand, the measures adopted have ensured compliance with the norms for the protection of health that the Authorities had been promulgating.

It is an ambivalent experience because we have not been able to hold the solemn ceremony of the opening of the academic year with its significant meaning as we would have liked; however, we also have the satisfaction of having been able to hold it respecting the prevention requirements.

–Q: How have classes been held in these first weeks? Have new challenges arisen?

–Father Prades: The classes began with a mixed model of physical presence and online presence. To tell the truth, we had great expectations to see if we would succeed in responding to the enormous challenges posed to us.

Thank God, the professors, the students, the administration and services personnel are adapting as a whole in an admirable way to the conditions in which we are working.

We all have to make an effort to respond to these challenges. For instance, every professor has to respond to the presence of students divided between the classroom and online attendance, which calls for teaching adaptations and not accommodate to a singe model.

The students also have to adapt to a rotation system, which modifies their usual working habits. And the administrative and services personnel is making an extraordinary effort to maintain in these conditions the academic activity that depends on them.

–Q: How do you try to guarantee the connection with the student body to facilitate the teaching and learning process? How are the students responding?

–Father Prades: We are trying to take advantage of the best of every circumstance. When we are in the classroom, valuing the direct contact with students, which is the one we consider a priority and typical of Saint Damasus and, at the same time, making a much more continuous use of online resources and other telematic instruments to facilitate University work.

There is a good disposition in our University life. We have personalized academic situations, paying attention to each one’s circumstances to find the most appropriate formula.

The students as a whole are responding with generosity and good humour because they realize that the challenge continues to be enormous.

–Q: What unknown benefits have you discovered given the greater use of technologies? How do you try to achieve proximity with the students of Saint Damasus University in these special circumstances?

–Father Prades: We have appreciated better the value of online technology for teaching. Our University was not prepared to turn its teaching into online technology, neither from the point of view of resources and computer instruments nor from the point of view of preparation and teaching.

However, we have only taken a few steps. We see the limitations that pedagogy and online teaching have, but we also see its advantages so that, in the near future, paying attention to the indications of the Congregation for Catholic Education, they can be integrated and incorporated much more decidedly, than up to now, in Ecclesiastical University teaching.

–Q: What biosecurity measures have been taken in the University’s installations to prevent contagions?

–Father Prades: In the University’s present premises in Madrid, the recommendations of the Ministry of Education have been followed, as well as the indications of the Health Authorities and consultation organisms, in keeping with the established official protocols.

Measures of a preventive character have been implemented and work is being done in preparation for eventual situations that might occur during the academic year.

However, no one can control completely what will happen in the future. We commend our work to the protection of Saint Joseph and Mary, Seat of Wisdom.

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