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The new school year is arriving with a great deal of stress and uncertainty for families across the U.S. Many school districts are trying to reopen partially or fully. Others are staying closed for the short or long term. The prospect of mass on-line schooling is sending shockwaves through living rooms and board rooms as working parents struggle to deal with oncoming challenges. Safety is a high priority, but so is learning, childcare, and the emotional and social health of our kids and parents.

Where is your church in all of this? 

There are many opportunities for churches:

  • open up our space for socially-distanced study halls  for online learners
  • provide safe space for small learning groups (aka "pods") being organized by neighborhood parents
  • support or even set up groups for tutoring/supervising children
  • loan tables and chairs to neighborhood learning pods and share our supplies with parents in need

This is an opportunity for churches to serve their communities at a time of dire need.  It is an opportunity for churches to turn their sadly empty or underutilized buildings into a blessing to those in need. 

Responding to crisis requires asking important and difficult questions. And every crisis is also an opportunity to show who we are.

What conversations are you having? What questions are important in this discussion?

How is your church planning on being the church in this time of need?

(See also our discussion on shared spaces.)

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Last edited by Neil MacQueen
Original Post

Thank you for posting this Amy.

This subject is personal to my family and friends and I have been doing a lot of thinking and looking into resources about it.

While Sunday Schools and churches worry about their "one or two hours a week," many of our parents are in serious stress about what their kids will be doing two or more DAYS a week this fall when their school is closed or only partially open. The uncertainty and mixed signals from local school districts about their plans and "what ifs" doesn't help, and it is feeding the need for parents to take matters into their own hands.

Some school districts are scheduling "split sessions" in various configurations, such as one half this week and the second half next week, or two days on per group and three days off. Many are not opening at all.  All these options are leaving parents scrambling for educational and childcare options.

  • It's a crisis that affects parents' jobs, income, and mental health.
  • It's a crisis that affects the intellectual, social, and emotional well-being of children.
  • It's a crisis that will disproportionately affect the working poor.

In response, a grassroots movement of "parents helping parents" has sprung up across the country that some have called the "Pandemic Pods" movement. (It has been reported in the NYT, and many other news outlets.) The idea is simple: form small groups of children who can be safely taught and supervised by a parent for X number of hours a day, X number of days a week.  Some are co-op, others are hiring tutors. In some areas, pod formation and resources are getting help from the schools themselves PTA's, and local teachers. Some pods are hiring teachers and tutors, but many are simply parent-led. There are detractors -- fearing that only the privileged can organize help for their kids, or that somehow pods will undermine public school. (I've never seen a good idea that doesn't have naysayers nipping on its heels.) Those fears, founded or not, don't solve the enormous and very REAL problem parents are facing in many school districts. 

I've been in touch with a number of families in my community, and with church educators through Rotation.org. I'm also a member of the "Pandemic Pods" group on Facebook (30,000 members and growing).  The following are ideas to get the conversation started where you're at.

Some things a church can do to support parents and kids in their congregation during this stressful time:

  1. Reach out and care
  2. Offer some of your Sunday School supplies for their home-use. 
  3. Help them connect with other families in the church to pool childcare and supplemental teaching (i.e. form their own "pod").
  4. Connect families with members of your church willing to provide "emergency childcare" or "check-in on teens at home" care while parents work.
  5. Set up a childcare fund for families in crisis.
  6. Identify qualified persons in your congregation willing to do some tutoring.
  7. Make sure your families have an adequate computer and internet connection to connect to online learning.
  8. What would you add to this list?


Is this a photo of a problem? ...or an opportunity?


Some things a church can do to support parents who are forming PODS:

  1. Offer your space to a pod or two. In some cases, the "lead" parent in a pod won't have enough space for the pod to SAFELY meet in their home.  

  2. Loan your long tables and folding chairs to neighborhood pods so they can better create safe and functional learning spaces. (Offer some of your unused Sunday School supplies too.)

  3. Offer your big indoor space for recreation. This could be especially helpful in areas where the fall climate is unfriendly.

  4. "Adopt a Pod" and organize volunteers to provide snacks and lunches.

  5. And if you want to go deeper...   offer to help fund a tutor or special learning materials/experiences, or offer members of your congregation who have special teaching skills. 

  6. At the very least, check on families in your church. See how they are handling the stress and what choices they are making. Connect, Care, and Offer Help!

Where to start?

  1. Get the word out to families in your congregation and through your families that the church is willing to help.
  2. Ask your members who don't have school-age children to speak to those they know with children.
  3. Find out what other churches and organizations are offering. 

Church questions and issues to resolve:

  • Liability
  • Childcare laws in your state
  • Building supervision while groups are present
  • Cleaning

These are not new issues, and they can be solved by those who want to help. Needless to say, there will be naysayers (every change or new thing has them), but this is also a great opportunity to show local parents that our churches care about them and their kids --and meet their immediate needs.

...and perhaps our buildings are sitting empty
"for just such a time as this."


Here's a great resource to learn more and share with families:

"Pandemic Pods" group on Facebook 

The Pandemic Pods group is a treasure trove of resources, links, and plenty of discussion from all points of views, needs, and regions. The discussion is well organized in a variety of categories including, Resources, Local Networks, Logistics, Educational Resources, Finding Teachers/Tutors, and Legal -- to name a few. The group has several admins to keep the crazies out and discussion helpful. 

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LINKS

"Schools may not open to students this fall, but churches might — for remote learning"

Published in Presbyterian Outlook Magazine (RNS)  July 27, 2020 

From Connecticut to Hawaii, congregations are seeking ways to support families still smarting from last spring’s sudden adjustment to home-based learning during the pandemic lockdown. They’re exploring how underutilized church buildings might be put to a new use that allows education to continue while freeing up parents to work and attend to other responsibilities.

Proposals range from hosting students during online classes to providing study hall space for them to work independently.

Remote learning will be the rule for schoolchildren in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for at least nine weeks this fall as the city tries to stem a surging coronavirus caseload. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll all be staying home. Some could be in church instead.

That’s the vision at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, one of several churches in Winston-Salem hoping to host remote-learning sites for small groups of socially distanced kids.

...as many as 30 students would gather daily — spread across three buildings at St. Timothy’s campus — in the mornings. Church volunteers would enforce health protocols, tutor, and lead prayers to begin and end the day.

Trinity UMC in Houston to open learning pods and expects many other Houston churches to join in the movement.

“We believe we can handle at least 75 kids at our church alone and we will give them everything they need to make it. We are talking about breakfast and lunch, study time, supervision and a powerful WIFI connection so they can connect digitally with their teachers at their individual schools,” said Pastor Ed Jones, of Trinity United Methodist Church.

Exact hours of the program have yet to be announced, but it’s believed kids will be able to attend from as early as 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Teams of screened, volunteers will supervise the kids and maintain social distancing and proper sanitizing for the children.

The big question is will those kids who can’t afford a laptop computer be provided with one. Without that, virtually connecting with their teachers will be impossible.

“For those children that can’t afford a computer or do not already have one, every kid that comes into our program will be provided with a computer to connect with their teachers, to be fully functioning in their school’s virtual program,” Jones said.

Recommendations for Establishing a Health and Safety Protocol in Your Learning Pod

From a health and safety perspective, creating or joining a learning pod is about mitigating COVID-19 risk, not eliminating it. The tradeoffs, of course, are the additional benefits related to your child(ren)’s experience in a learning pod.

From a resource blog that matches pods with teachers in major metro areas.

And it's worth posting again...

The "Pandemic Pods" group on Facebook 

The Pandemic Pods group is a treasure trove of resources, links, and plenty of discussion from all points of views, needs, and regions. The "group" discussion is well organized in a variety of categories including, Resources, Local Networks, Logistics, Educational Resources, Finding Teachers/Tutors, and Legal -- to name a few. The group has several admins to keep the crazies out and discussion helpful.



New York Times article on Pods

In recent weeks, many parents have realized the agonizing truth about school this fall: If it happens in person, it might not feel safe. And if it happens remotely, it will be inadequate, isolating and unable to provide the child care many working parents need. Desperate for a better solution, parents around the country have started organizing “pandemic pods,” or home schooling pods, for the fall, in which groups of three to 10 students learn together in homes under the tutelage of the children’s parents or a hired teacher.
NYT, 

Last edited by Neil MacQueen

There are so many different sides and so many different right answers for different people and churches. We all have different gifts (space, staff, location, funding, volunteers, ......).  I think this forum is a good place for us to share ideas and brainstorm, but conditions are so different from place to place right now that I am sure all will come away with different solutions. But I am glad to see that congregations are starting to have conversations about how not only to serve their members but also how to reach out to the community.

Here is a useful blog post by Rev Jan Edmiston that I found -- it does sound like schools in North Carolina are starting to think outside "the box" too. 

A Test and An Opportunity:
Yes, Churches Can Assist Their Neighborhood Schools

"School districts needing to physically distance students are looking for spaces in churches." 

The blog raises a good point about the importance of churches having relationships with local schools.  

In the past, my small church hosted a weekly homeschool group, until the group outgrew our space and moved to a larger church. We did not charge them for use of the space and just asked them to put the furniture back when they were done. I imagine now we would either ask a group to do a good cleaning when they were done (following CDC guidelines used by schools) or we could hire someone to do that (as part of our outreach - and a way to help unemployed people get back to work).

Things here in Louisiana are still unsettled, with the start of school pushed back one week where I live (to mid-August) and with the parents I checked with still uncertain whether they will send their children to school, use the school's new distance-learning choice, or homeschool on their own (or with a group). Praying fervently for them during this strange time.

Editor's Note: The Blog post linked above urging churches to help with the schooling crisis was written by Jan Edmiston, the 2016 co-moderator of the PCUSA's General Assembly.

Last edited by Neil MacQueen

Can Churches Be Part of the "Equity Solution" to Pods and Online Learning?

One of the issues swirling around on-line learning and "learning pods" is the question of "social equity."  Writers and social commentators are cautioning that parent-organized pods will favor the well-connected and wealthier over the lower-income, less-equipped, and less-connected families. 

Why is "equity" in this schooling crisis an issue?

  • Lower-income family homes typically have less square footage for safe-distanced pod learning
  • More single-parent households working jobs that require them to be out of the home.
  • Less access to high-speed internet service for online learning. 1 in 5 students don't have adequate internet access 
  • Fewer college-educated parents to teach their children. 
  • (But what they do have is higher rates of church attendance.)

With these issues in mind, RE-READ the ideas and articles linked above in this topic with an eye toward how YOUR CHURCH can help less-advantaged kids and families so they don't get left behind during this school crisis.

Here are two good and balanced articles about "equity" that discuss solutions:

In my reading, I've found a lot of "copycat" articles online that are simply "reporting the reporting," or have clickbait headlines issuing warnings. These two discuss the problem and some of the solutions that are being worked out.

Schools and community organizations can help address the "equity issues" (and some already are)  from VOX.

"For example, San Francisco, where public schools will start remote-only in the fall, is setting up 40 “learning hubs” at libraries and recreation centers where low-income kids, those in foster care, and those learning English as a second language can come to get in-person instruction and support."

“If you’re planning around those who already have access to resources, you’re going to miss a lot of opportunities to actually help close some of the opportunity gaps that we know are getting even larger.”

Is It Possible to Create Homeschooling Pods and Microschools Without "Opportunity Hoarding"? --from GoodHousekeeping's Life and Parenting online magazine

"Parents are choosing between a host of unfavorable options for fall's return to school, but "pandemic pods" also bring about issues of inequity." 

Your church's WIFI might be a godsend to kids in your neighborhood

25% of children this fall will not have adequate internet access to learn online.

Have lousy wifi at your church?

A 150 foot "CAT 6" internet cable running down the hall from your church's internet router with a "wifi repeater" connected at the end of the cable can bring your church's high speed internet to a room where a small group of kids have safely gathered. 

150' internet cable = $50.  Wifi repeater = $40.

Source: Common Sense Media
https://www.commonsensemedia.o...infographicfinal.pdf

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How churches can help with children's nutrition and health during the pandemic

The opportunities to help aren't hard to imagine. Here are several to start your thinking.

With school closings, free breakfast and lunch programs are disrupted or not available in every school. What's available varies state to state and locally. With economic disruptions, some families may be out of funds to purchase learning and sanitary supplies this fall. 

Begin by reaching out to local municipalities, other churches, and community groups about what they are already doing or planning, and where the needs are.

1. Know what's going on in your community (or not happening) and promote where needy kids can get a nutritious breakfast and lunch.

The USDA's summer lunch program ends in August but will likely be extended in many areas this fall. Search their interactive map for locations in your community which are part of the USDA's free lunch program. 

Some local restaurants are offering free meals to kids. 

Check your state and county resources for information on local food programs, including how your church can offer meals and be reimbursed. For example, in Ohio community organizations can apply for reimbursement.

2. Collect and distribute masks, soap, cleaning supplies, and hand-sanitizers to kids and families in need.

Contact your local foodbank for items needed and drop-off times.

Include school supplies (and offers such as tutoring or free wifi).

Watch for local "Back to School Backpack" giveaways typically sponsored by other organizations at the start of fall school and piggyback on their efforts to provide kids with AT HOME resources. 

Help distribute information about utility and internet assistance, and health information. The CDC has a lot of printable posters and pages for all sorts of situations and in many different languages.

3. Identify and find ways to appreciate care-givers, teachers, and healthcare workers.

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So very much to think about! 

Here is another interesting article: Some Students Should Go to School, Most Should Stay Home - it is a long and detailed piece with a rather alarming (but maybe sensible) socially, racially, and economically just suggestion: 

"So, what is the both/and answer to the question of how we should educate students in the midst of a global pandemic? Make schools work for the students and families who are most on the margins, who are at greatest risk if school buildings remain closed, who cannot meet their basic needs without them. Give these students full days and full weeks so that their families have a reasonable chance of being able to support them. And the rest of us stay home."

Nothing about the current situation is easy.  I think that as leaders in the church we are called to support the parents and teachers and families in our congregation and community in whatever way we can.

Here are some more suggestions of things individuals and churches can do:

  • during distance learning in the spring, schools were emailing families packets of worksheets and lessons. Many families do not have printers, even if they have internet. Churches can provide hotspots (see above) and also use of printers and copiers. Maybe even deliver printed materials?
  • an elementary teacher was looking for an affordable place to buy scrubs (the school board has approved scrubs so that teachers can more easily disinfect their work clothes) and immediately several people offered to buy scrubs or donate some they had to this woman.
  • pay library fines or unpaid lunch balances for a whole school in your community.

 

Churches can also support what other social service organizations are doing (with space, volunteers, or financial assistance). Check with local Boys and Girls Clubs, Head Start, community centers, the Y, homeless shelters.  

I also have heard that many private schools, daycares, etc. are having parents sign a “death waiver” of sorts, in case a student gets Covid while in their program and could sue the organization.  Legislation to deal with this is coming slowly.

By the way, the start of the school year has been pushed back a month in my community. Another month to pray and to plan and get ready for whatever the final answer from the school board is.

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