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Churches provide space for virtual learning

Children learning virtually at Denton's Chapel in White's Creek, TN. Courtesy of Lilla Marigza.
Children learning virtually at Denton's Chapel in White's Creek, TN. Courtesy of Lilla Marigza.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many schools and/or families are pursuing virtual learning for students during the fall semester, rather than returning to the classroom. This is a major shift in children’s education and may present unique challenges to some families.

Parents who work full-time (even from their home) may not be able to always monitor their children’s lessons. Other families may lack the necessary technology in terms of internet broadband or personal devices to create a virtual school at home. Children might also struggle to adapt to the new process or become lonely sitting at home by themselves all day. Teachers may be challenged to keep students on-task and engaged from a distance. Churches have heard these concerns from families and local schools. In Tennessee, two small United Methodist congregations have opened their doors to offer safe, shared learning spaces (pods) for local children.

Glendale United Methodist

When Glendale United Methodist in Nashville, Tennessee learned the local elementary school in its neighborhood would not be returning to in-person classes in the fall, the congregation looked for ways to help.

“One of our church members with a child at the school reached out to us, asking if they could use the building space. With the pandemic going on our building was kind of sitting empty. We said 'yes of course,'” said the Rev. Stephanie Dodge, Glendale's lead pastor.

“Our church is situated close to Glendale Elementary School and we felt it was a good strategy to have students able to work together in a room, so that they still got the social interaction of being at school,” said Tennessee Annual conference elder and Glendale member the Rev. Matthew Charlton.

One of the first things Glendale did was upgrade its internet to meet the increased broadband use. Secondly, the church developed health guidelines for using the space based on CDC recommendations, which include placing a sanitation station right at the door, requiring students to wash their hands periodically throughout the day, wear masks inside and following social distancing as much as possible.

“We looked into what the State of Tennessee requires in terms of childcare services within a church and learned that we would have to be licensed to host 5 or more children onsite at the same time, so we decided to limit ourselves to hosting 4 children. All 4 students live in the neighborhood and attend Glendale Elementary,” said Charlton.

The Glendale parents involved in the pod also hired three mentors to assist with the pod. Parents took applications and interviewed the candidates. Glendale provides space throughout the whole workday during which the students log in into their online classrooms with teachers or work on homework during the afternoon period. Glendale sees to it that the students have plenty of activities to keep them active between class sessions. The mentors work in shifts.

“The mentors are paid by the participating families rather than the church. Families are able to use a flexible spending account or federal tax credit to pay them. This allows everybody getting the reimbursements they need from the programs that are available to them,” said Charlton.

Denton's Chapel

Glendale United Methodist is not the only church opening its doors for hosting distance learning. For Denton’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Whites Creek, Tennessee, the idea of hosting a pod began with a couple neighborhood parents.

One of those parents was Caitlin Congdon, a lifelong United Methodist and employee of the General Council on Finance and Administration. For 11 years, Congdon has lived within walking distance of Denton’s Chapel, even though she attends McKendree United Methodist Church in downtown Nashville. Like many parents, she was concerned about balancing work and her children’s virtual schooling from home. She and another neighborhood family reached out to the Denton’s Chapel pastor with the idea of starting a pod.

“We wanted to make sure our kids were still getting the support they needed. The pastor of the church, the Rev. James Mathews, is actually a former school principal and was more than excited to host kids in the church. We wanted to keep it small and natural. We have three families involved who all live in the neighborhood,” said Congdon.

Before starting the program, Denton’s Chapel did not have internet, but the church applied for and received a hot spot from Metro Nashville Public Schools. The students meet from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“We bought a lot of books, art supplies, games and other activities to keep the students active in the downtime between class sessions. We also had to make sure we had all the right computer equipment, including headsets with microphones,” said Congdon.

Just like Glendale, the parents at Denton's Chapel hired a mentor to help with the children. “I am a musician by profession," said Jake Botts, Denton's Chapel mentor, "but haven’t been able to work much during the pandemic. I had worked with daycare and Montessori school programs in the past. I connected with one of the parents through Facebook and was offered the job. I spend most of my day keeping a schedule of students’ Zoom meetings with teachers and finding activities for them to do onsite between classes. Organization is essential."

Unlike Glendale, the pod at Denton’s Chapel consists mostly of children and families who are members of the neighborhood rather than members of the church. For both the parents and the congregation the pod is the beginning of a new relationship.

“This has become a way for parents and the church to support each other. The other parents and I are making donations to support Denton’s Chapel every month. Once we’re past COVID, we want to continue to have a relationship with this church and help it have a good relationship with the community around it,” said Congdon.

Important tips to remember

For churches who consider hosting pods for local students here are some key takeaways from Glendale and Denton’s Chapel:

    1. Find and engage interested parents in the church or community first. Let them tailor the program to meet their children’s needs. Ask them pay for supplies and mentors. This way they will be in control of their children’s learning and invested in the pod.

    2. Consult with professionals. Check with local and/or state government to make sure the church is in compliance with childcare laws and ordinances. Also make sure your church safe sanctuary guidelines for children and youth. Discuss any policy questions you might have with your annual conference office. Consult with health professionals about proper sanitation and safety practices. Congregations should also check to see if they and/or the families involved are eligible for reimbursements, tax credits or other forms of aid under the law. 

    3. Make sure your church has the necessary internet and technological capabilities to host a pod. You may need to upgrade your Wi-Fi or apply to get a free hotspot.

    4. Work with parents to screen and hire mentor(s) or proctor(s) to facilitate the program and lead the children in activities off-screen. Parents should have the final say in who is watching their kids. Mentors should have both the necessary technological knowledge and experience with children to facilitate virtual learning.Again make sure the church is compliant with safe sanctuary policies in terms of the number of adults with the children at all times.

    5. Ensure the students have plenty of fun activities such as toys, games or art projects to fill the time between classes. One of the key benefits of the pods is allowing children to interact directly with each other as kids. Make sure they have plenty of time together off-screen and try to get them outside some during the day.

Churches are in a unique position to help families in their community adapt and create safe spaces for children to continue to learn and play together during the pandemic.

As Charlton notes, “Any time a United Methodist Church is able to make itself present and available to the community, people see that grace. They feel that presence.”

Learn more about the virtual learning programs at Glendale and Denton’s Chapel by watching videos highlighting each church at UMC.org.