Sterling Church Helps Community Handle Remote Learning Challenges
The First Church in Sterling (MA) recently began running a Remote Learning Center for children who need to attend school remotely. Below, Rev. Robin Bartlett, Senior Pastor at First Church, shares how the program got started.
"I remember on the day that we closed the church back in March, one of my lay leaders (a high school teacher) who was on the team to make that decision turned to me and said, "this is all wrong. Jesus ran toward the sick and I am afraid we are running away." She was right, and it haunted me. We had no other choice (she knew that, too), but I knew in that moment that we would have to figure out how to run toward the suffering, despite COVID restrictions.I said to my leadership, what the schools need is more space. And there is so much empty space in our building. What our families need is relief, and we can provide it. The lay leader/high school teacher who cried and said, "this is all wrong" at the beginning of the pandemic wrote to me and said, "what are we going to do to educate these kids?" She and I started a conversation in which we began planning. We threw out ideas: "We could have a coop with parents." "We could hire some college students." "We could teach from the pulpit." She sketched out what it could look like to attach pull down desks in the pews in the sanctuary and wrote a manual. And the "sanctuary school" idea was born over Facebook messenger between the two of us.
In the beginning of the pandemic, we were worried most about our isolated, medically fragile elders. In May, we started our food program called "Food is Love" in which we have now surpassed 15,000 meals served on the street outside the church.
I don't think we considered that it might be our families who would suffer most of all.
In July, in the midst of our pandemic summer, it became pretty clear to many of us that our public schools in this area were not likely to open at all for the 2020/2021 school year; not even for hybrid learning. As this realization dawned, exhausted, scared, isolated parents started to go to war with each other. In just about the most complex mire of morality I think I have ever tried to wrap my brain around, the national conversation about whether to open the schools reached what looked like an untenable impasse at the same time. It will make a very interesting case study one day in a philosophy book, but right now, everyone—parents, teachers, administrators—EVERYONE—is hurting. Parents are pitted against teachers. Teachers are pitted against administrators. The battle threatened (and still threatens) to tear our communities apart.
Sometimes, we are used to thinking there is moral certitude as Christians. In this case, there is no "right thing," I told my church. Keeping schools closed hurts us all, and it hurts the most vulnerable children most: children of single parents. The working poor. Children on IEPs. Abused children. Children who need school to eat and have a safe place to go. Marginalized children who will fall behind as those with means pay teachers exorbitant amounts of money the public school can’t compete with to teach their small pod of homeschoolers and private schools.
Re-opening schools hurts the most vulnerable children and teachers, as well: the medically fragile students, the teachers who care for aging parents or who are in the at-risk category themselves, the schools with fewer resources, the communities with poor infrastructure and little access to heathcare. According to the CDC, Latino and black Americans are THREE TIMES as likely as white folks to be infected by COVID 19 and twice as likely to die.
The people who will be hurt the most in any scenario are the least of these.
And we just don't know what the right thing to do is. What we do know is that our call is to care for, lift up, and ease the suffering of the least of these. We had seen the suffering of our congregation's children and teenagers, many of whom have been hospitalized this year for suicidality and panic attacks. We had seen the suffering of our working parents, having to quit their jobs and stay home with children, or quit school to save to their jobs. We had seen the food insecurity in our community through our food is love program. What we did know is that we have a big, empty, closed building.
Pretty soon after that, we started getting more people involved to carry the idea over the finish line.
A team of about 12 lay leaders overcame all odds to make this happen. They passed it through leadership teams and the board of health and the state of Massachusetts. They went through multiple inspections. Truthfully, I was ready to give up on the idea by August, but they were not. Dennis Mulryan, a grandpa and a business owner and a diligent, thorough, kindly genius of a man, just kept going and going. He took this on like it was his baby. And one of my board members, Pete Rezac, a homeschooler himself with no "skin in the game," gently led us with good humor keeping us grounded in Christian principles the whole time. And the rest of the team fundraised and made craft kits, and improved the internet and transformed the space, and bought a state of the art air filtration system, and volunteered to staff it and so much more....And they PULLED IT OFF LIKE FREAKIN' ROCK STARS." ~ Rev. Martlett
First Church's Remote Learning Center is still in its early days of operation, but the program is well planned and already seeing success. The students are k-8th graders, mostly from Sterling, though some from surrounding towns. They come to a large space where Sterling volunteers and staff have created individual work spaces more than 6 feet apart with dividers to help keep them separate. Though no direct instruction takes place, the volunteers can help students with technology needs, organization, and giving them activities to keep them occupied when school work is finished. Students have access to an outdoor space directly from the center as well.
The program can accommodate up to 22 students a day, though most of the children do not attend every day as Sterling schools use a hybrid live/remote attendance schedule. The center maintains a 25-person maximum and schedules volunteers accordingly to keep the numbers safe.
Rev. Zackary Kerzee, Associate Pastor at First Church, said after planning and working on the program for so long it was great to finally see it in progress. He shared a story from the first week of the program.
A young girl had been experiencing depression because she was unable to see any of her friends while the school was in remote learning. She attended Sterling's remote learning center when it recently opened. Shortly after, her mother sent a message to the church stating that her daughter came home from the first day "grinning from ear-to-ear". She was so excited to see other kids in person and have a chance to interact, even from a distance while wearing a mask. The mother said it was the best day of her year.
You may reprint this story by including the following line in your article: Reprinted with permission from Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, Spotlight
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