ELCA congregations with schools and learning centers didn’t just adapt to the ever-changing protocols and requirements that COVID-19 demanded—they innovated by taking risks and trying new approaches to education and outreach, said Cory Newman, executive director of the Evangelical Lutheran Education Association (ELEA).

“With the passion, love and dedication that our school and center leaders show each and every day, I am confident they will do more than just overcome,” she said. “They will thrive in new ways of being church and school together.”

Against this backdrop, ELEA will celebrate its annual Lutheran Schools Week (LSW) March 7-12 to honor the integral role schools play in congregational ministries and communities, providing weekday education and faith formation. Under the theme “Hope and Joy,” LSW will celebrate its 1,350 schools and learning centers, the 150,000 children they serve and the nearly 18,000 staff who are dedicated to Lutheran education.

“This school year has been unlike any other and has given us many opportunities to pivot, grow and celebrate amidst hardship and fear,” Newman said. “And this year in particular, we want to say it loud and clear how grateful we are for our essential teachers, staff and their students who continued to bring the hope and joy we have in Christ amidst a devastating pandemic. Our theme of ‘Hope and Joy’ encourages all of us to see the many blessings among us and to celebrate, with joy, the hope we have for our young to live into their faith in what God will provide.”

Each ELCA school and early learning center celebrates in a different way. Some will create visual displays and host virtual celebrations, while others will join together for prayer, celebration and more in environments that follow COVID-19 safety precautions. They will all celebrate their dedication and successes during a school year that has been unlike any other.

For Linda Chambers, director of Memorial Lutheran Chapel School in St. Augustine, Fla., one of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been trying to keep the school’s family atmosphere alive and well while having to keep everyone but students and staff out of the building. Before COVID-19, families gathered for drop-off in the church hall and attended daily chapel services in the sanctuary with their children each morning.

“Everyone loved this time together, but it was impossible during COVID-19,” Chambers said. “We were now in classroom cohorts.”

Since they can’t gather in the sanctuary right now, staff created “chapel areas” in each of their classrooms. Each chapel area includes a Spark Story Bible, a battery-powered candle, a cross, a plush Jesus, and toy sets of Noah’s ark and the nativity.

“My biggest triumph was my solution to this challenge—daily chapel time in the classrooms with families joining us via Zoom,” Chambers said. “This has opened chapel time to a much wider family audience, and I can tailor the Bible story lessons to the needs of each age group.”

Family members have joined the chapel services from around the world.

Chris Comella, principal of Pilgrim Lutheran School in Chicago, said the biggest challenge for his school during the pandemic has been uncertainty.

“Parents, students and teachers thrive best when we know the rules and when we are consistent about keeping the rules,” he said. “Unfortunately, the rules about staying safe from COVID seem to be in direct opposition to what we normally expect from school. Physical distancing and remote learning are a huge inhibitor to best practice in education.”

Despite the challenges, the staff has a new and better understanding of how to use technology both in the classroom and remotely.

“Before the pandemic, use of iPads and Chromebooks was supplemental to the pen-and-paper work done in the classroom,” Comella said. “Now electronic devices have moved front and center as essential to remote learning.”

Not everything has worked, and parents have become frustrated with faulty school-issued devices and with teachers who have struggled to adapt the curriculum to a remote-learning format, he said.

But on the threshold of Lutheran Schools Week, one of the brightest spots of learning during the pandemic has been that standardized test scores at Pilgrim have remained on par with pre-pandemic scores, Comella said.

“While this is not the only indicator of success, it is an encouraging one,” he added.

Cindy Uken
Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning reporter based in Palm Springs, Calif. She has worked at USA Today, as well as newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and California.

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