NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Thursday the 26th of March, 2020.Thanks for listening to The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: The coronavirus and Christian schools.
No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’… hand sanitizer and toilet paper? Wait, I remember this rhyme very differently.
EICHER: Ah, what a time to be alive!
From “spring break” to “school’s out,” we have moved from that to who knows when we’ll be back and what things’ll be like.
Here’s WORLD correspondent Katie Gaultney on how Christian schools in particular are grappling with a new normal.
AUDIO: Hello! How are y’all?
KATIE GAULTNEY, REPORTER: The asphalt parking lot is still slick from morning rains when cars begin lining up at Coram Deo Academy in North Dallas. But they’re not dropping off or picking up kids, like usual. Instead, grammar school principal Michele Howard’s latex-gloved hands deliver packets of schoolwork to parents, drive-thru-style.
AUDIO: Those are your Missouri kids results. Is that all you need? Have you got everything? That’s all first grade and pre-K, so…
These worksheets will support two weeks of “virtual school.” But it’s possible the doors of many private Christian schools will be closed through the end of the year. Logic school director Rev. Jon Jordan said Coram Deo had to pivot quickly.
JORDAN: It’s just kind of the sort of thing that, you know, we may have taken an entire summer to think through do we ever want to offer anything online? And we would have explored options and tested it out and gotten feedback from faculty. And that whole process just kind of took place in four days instead.
The news of social distancing and other precautions has affected educators and families from all types of school environments: public, private, even homeschool. But private Christian schools face some unique challenges.
For one, they often lack the technical resources of major school districts. “A tablet for every child” is harder to come by in Christian school classrooms. They don’t have the deep pockets of public institutions for funding those types of tools.
Jordan told me teachers have had to be creative and keep an open mind.
JORDAN: On the one hand, you signed up for this ‘cause you signed up to teach your class, and this is how we’re allowed to do it now, but in a real sense, this isn’t what any of our faculty were hired for. Um, it’s kind of learning how to teach in a virtual context and doing that. And they have really risen to the occasion…
Coram Deo will expand the use of its online parent-teacher communication platform and implement a web-based tool called Microsoft Teams to get through these out-of-classroom weeks.
Meanwhile, teachers have been brainstorming together. They’re answering hard questions, like how to conduct assessments. Jordan told me one teacher suggested beginning each online test with a sort of ethics creed.
JORDAN: It essentially says, “Knowing that my honor is something that I can protect my whole life and lose in a moment, I’m certifying that I did all the reading I was supposed to do,” and they click the true button.
Jordan expects that will build more than academic knowledge; this exercise has the potential to build integrity.
JORDAN: And when the students are honorable in their answers, I think they learned something from that. And then when the students are tempted and given to the temptation to fib a little bit there, as a Christian school we kind of trust that that’s something that the Holy Spirit can use also to form them.
Christian schools also face financial challenges their public counterparts aren’t dealing with.
They depend on tuition to pay teachers, staff, and administrators. Christian “mother’s day out” programs and preschools are in a particularly tough spot: Most of them bill tuition on a monthly basis. And the distance learning model doesn’t lend itself to the baby and toddler set.
Lily Riemer is the assistant director of Jubilee Junction, a church-based school in Richardson, just outside Dallas.
RIEMER: And most schools can still offer virtual classrooms and still have their tuition. But as a preschool, what does that look like? If we don’t have payments, obviously then we can’t pay our staff. And our staff for the most part depend on that income.
Riemer and her school’s director are coming up with options to present to parents. Teachers could send a weekly email with suggestions for sensory activities, plus age-appropriate instruction. They also thought about having the teachers do a virtual circle time, sending a video of themselves reading a book to students, but…
RIEMER: Some kids, most kids are going to be more interested in the device than they are on what’s going on virtually. So I love the idea of a virtual circle time, but really, how productive is that developmentally for preschoolers?
They’ve also kicked around the idea of enabling tax-deductible donations that would go into a benevolence fund to help pay teachers in these unexpected down months. If teachers go without pay, that makes retention tricky.
RIEMER: So you have the short term vision, and you have this long term vision of how are we gonna keep our doors open and how are we going to provide for our staff so that cause we want it back next year, right? Like, we want to provide for them so that they can come back and be the effective, fabulous teachers that they have been for us this year…
Back at Coram Deo, Rev. Jordan has been able to move regular part-time staff to online support roles. Everyone at his school will continue getting paid as planned. But he worries this short-term pain could have long-term ripple effects. Years in the education system have shown him that hard times tend to negatively affect Christian schools’ bottom line.
JORDAN: If the economy takes a massive hit and people are losing jobs, that affects their ability to pay for private school. Short term, short term we’re keeping everybody.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Katie Gaultney in Dallas, Texas.