One For the Record Books
The 2020–2021 school year ushered in colossal changes to how students attended school and the way all of us did, well, everything. In addition to the logistical changes we all faced there were the added layers of personal tragedy of death, illness and economic loss. These shifts happened rapidly — faster than most businesses and schools were able to respond.
Let's be honest. There is nothing ideal about students and teachers forced to cope with remote learning as so many have been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Online education is not as simple as putting a camera in front of a classroom teacher and sending the video to students sitting in a makeshift dining room-as-classroom. It’s clear teaching online is NOT the same as teaching in a classroom.
This was a trying year for Adventist schools across the Northwest. As learning rapidly shifted online, many schools faced heavy expenditures to add new and necessary technology. Other schools saw enrollment drop, which necessitated significant staff cuts for the coming year.
It’s easy to point to all the problems and mistakes that characterized what has been widely recognized as one of the worst years in modern American education. Undeniably the past year challenged educators, parents and students alike. And yet, Adventist education across the Northwest has experienced many unexpected blessings despite the awkward learning environment this past year.
An Unexpected Side Effect
The mass school closures across the Northwest during the pandemic resulted in an unanticipated silver lining for some Adventist schools. Several experienced enrollment increases during the past year.
Growth may seem surprising when so many schools were forced to shut down. Dennis Plubell, North Pacific Union vice president for education, said, “Adventist schools have a unique advantage that hasn’t always been appreciated. Our schools are smaller, and that makes them more agile.”
The smaller size of many Adventist schools qualified them to continue to remain open or reopen sooner than larger public schools. Health department social distancing requirements were easier to meet with smaller student bodies.
Families looking for in-person instruction recognized in-person Adventist schools as opportunities to provide their children with a stronger education than what they had been experiencing online.
“It would have been easy for our schools to turn students away,” said Plubell. “Instead, we opened our doors and looked for ways to accommodate and serve more families in our communities.”
Madras Christian School in Madras, Oregon, is one of many Adventist schools that experienced this silver lining. Dan Nicola, Oregon Conference associate education superintendent, said, “Madras community families sought out alternatives to the remote learning offered by the public schools.” The resulting enrollment bump nearly doubled the MCS student body.
Nicola said, “When everybody looked at COVID-19 as a big black cloud, it actually resulted in us being able to share Jesus with more kids.”
Among the children whose parents sought out MCS were two brothers. Neither had been exposed to Christianity. “Both boys absorbed everything about the Bible like sponges,” said Nicola. “The boys hadn’t been in school very long before they started asking questions and wanting to know more about the Bible and the Adventist Church. Their mom noticed a marked difference in the boys’ behavior and asked questions too.”
The two brothers have since started attending the Madras Adventist Church and have both asked for baptism.
“We would never have been able to reach these boys if it hadn’t been for the pandemic,” said Nicola.
Ministry Despite the Shutdown
Another silver lining Northwest Adventist education experienced amid pandemic shutdowns was the opportunity to continue serving and ministering to families.
In districts where in-person learning was not allowed, some Adventist schools were able to be declared emergency child care centers. These schools provided a venue for students to engage in remote learning during the day while their parents were at work.
“The scale of our size was a benefit to our schools and early childhood care centers,” said Nicola. “It was an opportunity to provide innovative learning solutions to parents.” This creative approach allowed a level of student-teacher interactions unavailable to larger schools.
Additionally God moved school ministry forward in other ways despite the pandemic. In Trout Creek, Montana, God worked to provide their Adventist school a platform for greater ministry.
Before the COVID-19 shutdowns Trout Creek Adventist School was bursting at the seams and desperately needed a new school building. The school had been operating in the basement fellowship hall of the Trout Creek Adventist Church for the last 10 years.
Even thought people had sacrificed and donated toward the building fund, the project lacked significant resources to move at a faster pace. The school board met in January 2021 and decided to let God make it clear when He wanted to move forward. For a time it seemed that God was saying, "Wait.”
However, the divine gears began to work. In a very short time the school was able to locate a beautiful space to lease as well as secure the funding to make it possible to expand the school.
On Monday, March 29, 2021, Trout Creek Adventist School had its first day in the new location. The school now has the ability to seek out more students and to be a witness to others who use the facility.
The students, school board and church have also had an opportunity to see how tremendously God has led in obtaining this new facility.
What will happen in a year?
We don’t know. We will continue to seek God’s plan because it is obvious His plans certainly are better than what we had planned.
From Isolation to Community
While businesses were shuttered and so many families were separated in order to keep elderly loved ones safe, an interesting thing happened among Adventist educators. The pandemic that had kept so many apart began having the opposite effect on teachers. Instead of working in silos, teachers began sharing, talking and collaborating more than ever before.
Michelle Wachter, Washington Conference associate superintendent, shared how this happened in Washington schools.
“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Wachter, “we met together with our principals four times a year. People would always sit in the same areas. There wasn’t much cross-communication between the elementary and high school teachers.”
Following the pandemic shutdowns, the conference began meeting remotely once a month with the principals. The regular communication and connection were appreciated and needed.
It wasn’t long before they started asking to meet more often.
“Now we meet once a week for an hour,” said Wachter. “We give principals who want to share a chance to talk about what is happening at their school and what they need input on. We also take time to pray for each other. We call it our Principals' Check-In.”
As school principals began meeting more often, an interesting phenomenon began occurring. Even though they were meeting on a videoconferencing platform, people began opening up more as trust and friendship developed. When principals shared frustrations or woes, those with more experience began to ask questions and offer support.
“I was especially touched by one act of collaboration,” said Wachter. “A head teacher, also serving as a principal, shared how she had difficulty getting all the necessary paperwork completed in addition to teaching responsibilities. A principal from a large school who doesn’t have to teach classes offered to come to the other principal’s school and gift them time teaching in the classroom so the head teacher could focus on their leadership responsibilities.”
The weekly check-ins have created understanding and changed people’s perspectives. “It’s been wonderful to see people having empathy for what others have been going through,” said Wachter. “Because of how our pandemic meetings have changed and increased our communication, our in-person meetings will never look the same again.”
The increased communication and sharing has happened among principals and teachers alike across the Northwest. In large schools, there has also been greater collaboration and idea sharing throughout the pandemic.
The Blessing of Lemons
The bitterness of the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely challenging for so many people, not just educators. While we don’t want to make light of the ordeal we’ve been through, Adventist education in the Northwest has experienced silver linings. Where many saw lemons, we’ve been able to see lemonade despite the pain and sorrow.
The increase in enrollment allowed for more students and families to be touched by our commitment to sharing Jesus in the classroom. The shutdowns allowed for ministry to continue happening through our schools because of our unique size and our ability to adapt quickly to the rapidly changing federal and state requirements. Finally, the new educational landscape forced teachers to collaborate and communicate more closely than ever before, which has resulted in a stronger and more cohesive family of teachers.
Education will likely never look the same going forward and yet God has empowered and enabled Northwest teachers to continue their high calling through the pandemic trials.
“And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus,” Philippians 4:19 NLT.