Training up (school)children in the way they should go is manifestly more complex during a pandemic.

by Heather Reifsnyder  |  7 January 2021  |

At 10 p.m. on the day they received a diagnosis of Covid-19, two lifelong teachers passed as one exited their Adventist school and the other entered. They had received something else that day, too: a demand from administration to ensure all lesson plans were in order.

“We just threw our hands up in the air and asked one another, ‘Can they ask this of us?'” one of them recalls.

Just as Covid-19 illness varies from asymptomatic to deadly, the experience of Seventh-day Adventist education during this pandemic ranges from fairly normal to once-in-a-lifetime stress-inducing. The pandemic reveals some of the best among preK-12 Adventist education and is accelerating educational advancements, as well as expanding outreach into communities. On the other hand, the cost is too high for some individuals, revealing weaknesses in the system.

“I am really proud of how resilient and persevering our people have been,” said Arne Nielsen, vice president of Education for the North American Division. Too, he noted his biggest concern is for their mental health, acknowledging the pandemic “has already taken a toll.”

Fears for teachers’ well-being are often of top concern. Contributing stressors include new cleaning protocols as well as the perplexities of having to be prepared for multiple educational scenarios, said LouAnn Howard, director of Education for Mid-America Union Conference. 

Principals also carry a heavy burden, including criticism from displeased parents. Just as public-school decisions are passed down from the federal level to the state to the county to the city, private school systems also tend to leave choices at the local level, according to Larry Blackmer, associate executive director of the National Council for Private School Accreditation(NCPSA). (Adventist schools are accredited by the Adventist Accrediting Association, and NCPSA provides a second accreditation to Seventh-day Adventist schools as well as 17 other organizations.) The Council advises principals to bring their stakeholders together to try and find a consensus, but no matter what decision they make, someone will be unhappy, he said.

Some parents will not send their children to school unless masks are required, while others refuse to let their children wear masks. Some parents want their children physically in school, and others want to keep them entirely at home.

Nimble solutions for complex choices

Schools need to be ready to move fluidly, as demands dictate, from in-person education to purely virtual or a hybrid in between.

Among the Seventh-day Adventist system, some conferences make these choices for all schools in their territories, and others offer guidance while leaving choices to individual schools. 

The Allegheny East Conference decided from the outset that the 2020-2021 school year would be conducted virtually at all of its schools except the boarding high school, Pine Forge Academy. Superintendent of Schools John Alberty said the conference’s position is that no life should be risked. But recognizing the need for community, the conference this year created a Consortium School, which six out of the territory’s 10 preK/K-8 schools opted to join. In the consortium, teachers are able to focus on a single grade level, departmentalized by subject matter. Volunteers are handling technical matters related to virtual instruction. The Consortium School is attracting students out of state, and the Allegheny East Conference plans to continue with it after the pandemic passes.

The Northeastern Conference has also formed a consortium, comprising all 15 of its schools, including elementary and senior academics, and the Northern New England Conference is doing something similar, noted Jerrell Gilkeson, director of Education for the Atlantic Union Conference. 

All told, the Atlantic Union has more than 50 schools throughout its six conferences. A number of those schools, and many in various locations of the North American Division, operate in person. 

In-person operations are most desirable for many schools and parents, but even when that is the case, schools have to be ready for educating their students virtually. This was played out at Cascade Christian Academy, located in Wenatchee, Washington, during the summer. Led by Principal Stephanie Gates, the school kept in close contact with the local health department and other relevant agencies.

The plan “covers every possible scenario,” Gates said.

Plan A was for students to return in person right at the beginning of the school year, but the school learned two weeks prior that regulations precluded doing so. So they pivoted, spending the first three days of school talking individually with each student’s family, distributing materials, schedules and some technical instruction. School was virtual for September, and in October the school was able to begin bringing kids back on campus in a phased manner two or three grades at a time, beginning with youngest grades. By a week after Thanksgiving, the juniors and seniors were finally able to return. 

Students “are doing great now that they’re on campus,” Gates said. While Cascade is fortunate to have already been integrating technology into education prior to briefly going all-virtual, some of the high school kids began to display worsening mental health around the middle of October when stuck at home.

But now back on campus, there is “so much laughter and joy and happiness,” she said. 

The positive atmosphere has brought on a happy problem for Cascade Christian Academy, in which the requirements for keeping students socially distanced within their classrooms have prevented the school from growing in enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year as much as it could have otherwise. 

Not all schools are as fortunate. 

Enrollment losses and gains

Thirty-three schools closed this year in the North American Division. These closures occurred in seven out of 10 unions. The Southwestern Union Conference gained one school, and both the Southern Union Conference and North American Division Union (comprising Guam and Micronesia) held steady in number of schools. 

By school type, the closures occurred thusly:

  • Early childhood education programs: 19 closures
  • PreK-8 and PreK-10 schools: 14 closures
  • PreK-12 schools: no closures
  • High schools (grades 9-12): no closures

Enrollment dropped by 8,063 students from last school year to the current, which breaks down by grade level as follows:

  • Early childhood education: loss of 2,842 students.
  • Elementary: loss of 4,175 students.
  • Secondary: loss of 1,046 students.

Staff loss has also occurred, representing 244 fewer teachers and administrative staff.

Distance education school Griggs International Academy picked up 301 students from the North American Division, many of whom are anecdotally anticipated to return to traditional schools after the pandemic.

Source of statistics: Obtained Jan. 3, 2021

Losses and gains contextualized

Of note, educational officials state that not all closures are due to Covid-19. Additionally, while many traditional schools closed, other schools have opened, re-opened, or combined. For instance, Vegas Valley Adventist Academy opened this year as a unification of two Adventist schools in Las Vegas, a move that was planned before the pandemic. Ocala Adventist Academy in Florida re-opened this school year after closing in the early 2000s, offering kindergarten through ninth grade education in the community of the same name, located about 65 miles northwest of Orlando.

In forecasting potential student loss, some schools have rejoiced when predicted drops turned out lower than expected, such as Campion Academy, a boarding academy in Colorado. Enrollment was expected to be in the 120s, compared to last school year’s opening enrollment of 155, said Principal Donavan Reeder. But more than 140 were enrolled during the fall 2020 semester.

Still, division-wide the loss of students and schools during the year 2020 is significant, following and in some cases accelerating a general downward trend in the number of families who send their children to Seventh-day Adventist primary and secondary schools in the NAD. 

“The students who didn’t return to our schools this year weigh heavy on my heart,” said Berit von Pohle, director of Education for the Pacific Union Conference. “We believe that our schools are a ministry and have a strong desire to reach as many students as possible.”

But von Pohle has also witnessed positives during the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, “There has been an increased level of collaboration between teachers during this time. And that collaboration is not limited to a specific school site. Teachers are collaborating with teachers from other schools and other conferences in search of ways to meet the needs of their students.” And through it all, “Our teachers continue to allow God to use them to share His love with students.”

Changes in the education landscape

The pandemic is bringing teaching into an era of new strategies and technologies at a faster clip than would have occurred otherwise. This forceful development is one of the biggest sources of stress during the pandemic. Division VP for Education Arne Nielsen related that students are sometimes educating their teachers on how to use various technologies.

Classroom teaching and online teaching are two different animals, and being good at one doesn’t equate to always being good at the other, noted Larry Blackmer of the National Council for Private School Accreditation. 

Online teaching is different than remote education, explains La Ronda Curtis Forsey, principal of Griggs International Academy. Griggs offers a K through 12th grade curriculum in regionally accredited programs for students in the United States and 22 other countries. Most of their teaching is asynchronous, meaning instruction and class work are not primarily conducted live over the internet. This style of teaching revolves around mentoring students and facilitating courses. But remote education, as the term has often been used during Covid-19, is a mostly synchronous effort to replicate an in-person classroom experience online. This tends to result in exhausted teachers having to spend every waking moment planning and grading, Forsey said, while for the children, sitting in front of Zoom six hours a day can be “mind-numbing.” But in explaining the difference in education styles, Forsey praises teachers for what they are accomplishing during the pandemic regardless: “They are heroes, in my opinion,” she said.

Teachers who are willing and able will learn skills this year that they will use for the rest of their career, and moreover, the pandemic is already changing how future teachers are being educated, said Forsey, who is also an associate dean of the College of Education & International Services at Andrews University (where Griggs is also based).

“We’re seeing a rebirth of education,” Forsey said. Meanwhile, online schools are now stepping up their co- or extracurricular offerings. At Griggs, the incoming students this year from traditional schools have brought with them enthusiasm for social and spiritual activities that is increasing the interest among existing Griggs students. Writing, art or exercise workshops in the “Griggs Life” program that used to draw a few kids are now drawing large pools.

A course titled “Teaching Online in K-12” by La Ronda Curtis Forsey is available through Adventist Learning Community, along with numerous other continuing education courses for teachers. 

Health, wellness and burnout

Any positives such as professional expansion are predicated upon teachers remaining or regaining health. 

Educators are “doing an amazing job in very difficult circumstances,” said Jeff Bovee, superintendent of Education for Kansas-Nebraska Conference. He admits feeling concerned some won’t be able to complete the rest of the school year. The conference works to support and cheerlead them, Bovee said, including giving all teachers in the conference an additional two personal days on top of the standard two allotted per school year (in addition to 10 sick days). But it can be difficult to ascertain the best kind of support to offer. “It’s a real challenge knowing what they need, because each person is different,” he said.

The pandemic is highlighting that “No matter what your policy is, a situation can pop up that is different than what you expected,” Bovee said. 

Principal Gates, of Cascade Christian Academy, also acknowledges that even with the best-laid plans, adjustments must be made. When a student tested positive for Covid-19 in November, the school triggered quarantine for two grades, putting them immediately back to online learning for the quarantine period.

“We work on our strategies a lot. … There’s definitely stress but we’re really focusing this year on self-care” as well as supporting one another, she said.

The specter of possibly contracting Covid-19 is still fearful even with masking, enhanced cleaning and daily temperature screenings. Adventist schools across the U.S. have had cases among students or faculty, and source of transmission can be difficult to ascertain. When a local health department official states that, in a school where both students and faculty have tested positive, spread is not likely occurring within the school, and yet a teacher who caught Covid never goes anywhere but to school and back home again, mistrust can breed. 

And that mistrust multiplies when such a teacher isn’t given assurance until after they have used all their sick days and returned to the classroom, still feeling weak and faint, that they should take all the time they need getting well: no pay will be lost.

“I feel like I am part of the Adventist teacher cult where we have been so guilted and so brainwashed to think that the most important thing is that you are there every day teaching those kids, no matter what your physical condition,” says one teacher. 

Parents, too, sometimes fear the risk of school transmission. One couple in the Pacific Northwest recently pulled their children out of school because of Covid outbreaks, with the mother taking over homeschooling duties and feeling “quite overwhelmed.”

For some children, there are other risks. Pedro Ojeda, principal of Holbrook Indian School, reported that some students are at greater risk of coming to harm at home, in addition to lacking the necessary technology for distance learning. The school is discontinuing the option for families to elect distance education for the new semester.

Heather Reifsnyder is a freelance writer and editor with a love of poetry, forests, and the Oxford English Dictionary. She lives in inland Southern California but dreams of cooler climes. Heather is on Twitter at @WordFashioner. She can be contacted for writing or editing work here.

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