Like many schools, Christ Lutheran School in Phoenix was on spring break when it became clear that COVID-19 was going to disrupt the school year. The school serves preschool through eighth grade. On the Friday of their week-long break (Friday the 13th, no less!), the administration met to game plan what changes might need to be made. On Saturday the 14th, the faculty met. By the end of that day, an email communication had gone out to every family as to what was going to happen.
On Wednesday, March 18, distance learning began. As circumstances have evolved, the school has planned to continue with distance learning for the rest of the school year. Should things change, they can always go back to normal, but they are working on the assumption that they will be online for the rest of the year.
The transition has been easier for older students, as many of the school’s textbooks and resources were already online. Teachers with more experience with the technology the school is using (primarily the Google Classroom suite) are helping the primarily younger-grade teachers who are using it for the first time. But it is an adjustment for everyone.
For both older and younger students, teachers are providing a daily slideshow via Google Classroom with an agenda, videos of lessons and any resources that they might need for the day. Younger grades are focusing on the key subjects of literature, English, math, and religion every day. Older students are taking all of their usual subjects but spreading them out over the week. They get a checklist for the week with their work expectations and a bit more flexibility to accomplish it.
“Students and parents want structure,” Principal Jon Doyle told me over the phone. That is exactly what Christ Lutheran is working to provide.
Doyle and business manager Kim Walton took the time to walk me through what the school is doing and spoke about some lessons they have learned.
I’d like to highlight three:
Lesson #1 Safety and Security
As one might be able to derive from the name, Christ Lutheran is a religious school that takes the moral formation of its children seriously. Parents send their children there to have them in a safe environment.
Moving online poses all sorts of risks to that. As of now, the school is not using platforms that allow for private chat and/or the sharing of images between students, as the risk for inappropriate behavior is too great. They also use software that monitors student online behavior and sends them alerts if students who are signed in through the school’s network access inappropriate materials.
With respect to video content, the school is taking several steps to protect students. First, teachers are recording their own videos and uploading them to Google Classroom. If they use YouTube, they create private channels that limit access. When looking for outside resources, the school is working on “whitelisting” YouTube channels—creating a pre-approved list that teachers and families can choose from.
Lesson #2 Managing Teacher Burnout
When talking about the teachers at Christ Lutheran, Doyle told me that “they are working harder than they ever have.” Recording lessons, uploading videos and communicating with parents is difficult and time intensive. Grading has changed too. Doyle himself teaches eighth grade math, and while he would normally go over homework in class and check answers with students, he now has to print out student work and review each bit individually.
Like many other schools profiled in this series, the teachers at Christ Lutheran have their own children at home, as well.
Doyle is actively looking for ways to manage the teacher workload and prevent them from getting burned out. Part of that is listening to teachers when they identify resources or tools that can make their lives easier. Another part is being open to trying new and different things and being flexible to change things up when they are not working. But longer term, this is something that the school is going to have to continue to wrestle with. For every school in America, these are uncharted waters, but starting with the recognition that burnout is a worry is the right first step to preventing it from happening.
Lesson #3: Looking to the future
Like most private schools, Doyle and Christ Lutheran are worried about the future. It is a tuition-based school. As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the economy, how will parents respond? This is a question that every private school in America is asking. They are working to make the best of the situation for the rest of this school year, but next school year is already looming on the horizon. What will that bring?
Doyle and his team are doing everything that they can now to provide the highest quality content and connection to demonstrate their value to the families that they serve. They are working to figure out the best way to maintain the community that is at the heart of the school and keeping families connected to the school and each other.
I can say for certain at least one parent is happy. He emailed me, “CLS has done (in my view) an excellent job of switching over to distance learning while continuing to share the love of Christ reflected through the actions of caring teachers.”
Private schools across the country are looking to provide safe and nurturing environments in a way that is sustainable for their teachers all while looking at an uncertain and foreboding future. I do not envy them. But I do think the world of them. These folks are standing in the gap and saying to the coronavirus, “You’ll not prevent our kids from learning today.” They deserve our respect, our admiration and our support.