Episcopal Schools Return, Focus on Faith & Safety

Screens between desks enhance student safety at St. Philip’s School, Coral Gables, Florida. St. Philip’s photo

By Neva Rae Fox

As a national debate rages over whether to return to the classroom in a few short days or weeks, Episcopal schools are taking a variety of approaches to balancing safety and education.

“Almost all of our schools transitioned to online teaching in the spring,” said the Rev. Dan Heischmann, executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES). “It was a pretty quick transition. It’s really remarkable what our schools did.”

“We were able to turn on a dime,” shared the Rev. Dr. Stuart Dunnan, headmaster of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland. “We delivered our whole curriculum online. This was an example of our versatility and the different academic culture of private schools.”

He added, “We learned things. We learned what worked and what didn’t work.”

St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, a pre-K-12 school in Alexandria, Virginia, also shifted from in-person learning to virtual. Kiki Davis, director of institutional equity and diversity, said that “this transition presented an opportunity for our preschool to look at how preschoolers learn through a different set of lenses. Our teachers made phone calls, mailed letters, and engaged with small and large groups via Zoom.”

The Rev. Michael Spencer, vice rector for faculty at St. Paul’s, Concord, New Hampshire, noted, “Everything came to a head when we were on spring vacation. We moved to create a schedule.  It answered the need that we had to provide for engagement for our students and to prioritize the academic rigor of our classes, allowing for students, even international students, to be able to connect with their teachers.”

Episcopal schools made plans with input from faculty, administration, board, parents and, in some cases, students. The results fall into three categories: in-person, completely online, or a hybrid of the two, with most planning for at least some in-person education. All are aware that plans may need to change with changing conditions.

Heischmann said that no school has announced plans to cease operations, and that school enrollments have generally been steady, and in some cases have increased from last school year.

“No matter what plan is implemented, the schools will physically look different,” Heischmann said, with schools reconfiguring their space to meet social distancing requirements.

Jasmine B. Harris, head of school at St. Philip’s in Coral Gables, Florida, said June was dedicated to “removing unnecessary furniture, knocking down walls.” Students will not rotate classrooms to “increase our ability to contact trace.”

“We are limiting how students interact with each other,” Harris said. “There will be no choir.”  Also new for the fall: swivel cameras in the classrooms, staggered starting and dismissal times, and “we invested in a lot of plexiglass.”

Spencer also installed 360-degree cameras, and purchased other equipment, including iPads that allow for sharing screens, and white boards. He also said the day’s schedule would be altered with priority teaching time between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. “A bit more passing time between classes (we have a large campus) allows for the cleaning of the classroom.”  Other keys are installing special filters in buildings and shifting times for lunches and dinners. He said communal lunch is “just not going to work.”

“At St. James, we are starting on September 5,” Dunnan said. “The board and parents were clear that they wanted us to reopen. We don’t have fall sports; we don’t have interscholastic sports. Masks, social distancing, no common meals, temperature checking each day. And we are never gathering the whole school in the fall.”

Many are considering closing after Thanksgiving break and not reopening until the winter semester. All are wary of a potential second wave of the virus, which could be coupled with the annual flu season.

Virtual worship

Although students’ education was interrupted during the spring, worship remained foundational in every school.

“We moved quickly to online chapel,” said Norman Hull, chaplain of Campbell Hall, Studio City, California. “We never did online chapel services before.”

Hull said one of the lessons learned was “the kids were so appreciative that they could connect with other. We had to find ways to keep the community connected, and Zoom did it. Just seeing each other’s faces was so important.”

Another way to keep connected was the expansion of roles in chapel.  Hull explained that every sixth and eighth grader “took a Bible story and connected it to the world, connecting to stories like Ruth and Naomi.”

And, for the first time, “We offered summer chapel. Kids were not going to camp, not going on vacation, some were not leaving the house,” Hull said. “Summer chapel allows me to work with students on readings and keeps us connected to community.”

Spencer agreed.  “There are silver linings of COVID time, and appreciating community is one of them. Chapel is a grounding experience for our students.  It is our community-connection time – it connects our students and we become aware of our place in the world, our service to our community, and how we can reflect the life of Christ.  It allows a deeper sense of spirituality, a deeper sense of purpose.”

“Our families have several online opportunities to worship,” said Tamiko McCullough, director of St. Stephen’s Preschool in Durham, North Carolina.  “They can worship virtually with the parish on Sunday through our recorded services. During the week, there are also preschool chapel videos that our families can access at any time.”

Addressing social issues

Episcopal schools have not shied away from the issues currently facing the nation. Besides COVID-19, schools have found creative ways to engage with social justice issues raised by the economic downturn and Black Lives Matter protests.

In the middle of the pandemic was the murder of George Floyd,” Heischmann pointed out.  “Many schools reacted to that.”

Davis agreed. “I think that one thing that is happening is intersectionality: the pandemic, diversity and equity, social uprising, and the economy. So much of my work is talking about the intersectionality and our connections. Putting a lens on all issues.”

She continued, “We want these kids to have these conversations. You don’t have to agree, but when you understand where the person comes from, you have an insight. … It’s about maintaining relationships.”

Harris believes it is important to address issues with students. “You are never too young to learn.”

The Rev. Todd Fitzgerald, chaplain, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Austin, Texas, said his school follows the guidance provided by their founder, former Presiding Bishop John Hines.  “We teach our children about social justice issues and how they can engage in mind and heart.”

He added, “The pandemic has exposed those who are most vulnerable, not only in Austin but in the U.S.  As educators we are very aware of how important it is to live into our baptismal covenant – we are about respecting the dignity of every human being in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of an election season, in the middle of racism.”

Educators share their hopes

“We can be so impactful on the lives of children, we can teach them about right and wrong, diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Harris said.  “We can talk about differences. And love one another, not in spite of that, but because of that. We are all still humans, we all still hurt, we are all still the same.”

“My hope,” Fitzgerald said, “is that more and more of the young people in my school community have a greater sense of Paul’s statement that nothing, nothing, can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

“My hope is that we move through this liminal threshold time with eyes wide open,” Spencer said.  “Schools are not places that should mimic culture, they should create culture.  Schools should be where we form students to make a better future.”

Davis said, “All I expect is an open heart and a willing spirit. Faculty, students, parents, alumni – it is messy work, but we can be better, we won’t be perfect, but we can do better.”

Harris summed up the feeling of all the educators: “At the end of the day, I have to think of the safety of the children first.”


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