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Church-Based Schools Adapt in Pandemic

Visionary school leaders take extra measures to invest in education of students, peace of mind for parents.

On any given weekday, Mark J. Anthony, head of Trinity Christian School of Sharpsburg, Georgia, walks down hallways and finds prekindergarten through high school classrooms bustling with teachers instructing and children learning — in person.

After the pandemic hit in March, many church-based private schools closed, resulting in a heavy loss of tuition revenue; they continue to struggle in the current school year.

However, Trinity, one of the largest Christian private schools in the Assemblies of God, has adapted well, maintaining its nearly 1,400-student attendance level. Trinity approached the fall school year determined to focus on students’ most pressing needs.

“Our families have discovered that for the well-being of their children, they need to be in a social environment where the students can thrive not just academically, but socially and spiritually,” says Anthony. “And that happens more effectively in community.” But he also understands the importance of securing safe and healthy measures to ensure that welfare.

Working in association with Trinity Fellowship, which Anthony also pastors, the school spent more than $100,000 on safety measures. Expenditures include installing global plasma solutions bipolar ionization units on all heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems for air purification, similar to the systems at hospitals. Other efforts include purchasing touchless sanitation stations, fitting plexiglass barriers, and erecting outdoor tents for lunchtime social distancing needs.

It’s an investment to be sure, Anthony admits, but he believes the mission is worth it.

“To stand before the Lord and say that we utilized our money and our resources to teach our children the Word of God on a daily basis is one of the greatest privileges we have,” Anthony says.

Though not all the students returned to in-person learning — about 70 opted for virtual lessons, while 150 chose not to return at all — Trinity actually has gained 140 pupils in the midst of the pandemic and economic downturn.

Trinity isn’t the only AG school to thrive during the pandemic. To counteract the panic many other Christian-based private schools endured, as well as to help its schools adapt well, the Assemblies of God-affiliated International League of Christian Schools (ILCS) hosted several virtual workshops on navigating the crisis and preparing for the future. The ILCS supports churches through formal Christian education by providing accreditation, teacher certification, and professional development. As ILCS reached out to AG schools, organizational leaders saw positive results.

“I am thrilled to report that our Christian schools and preschools are alive and well, and in many cases, thriving,” says Michael A. Burroughs, executive director of the Lakeland, Florida-based ILCS. “God has blessed our Christian schools not only to remain a valuable ministry in our communities, but to respond in a unique way to parental needs in this unprecedented pandemic. I am proud of our school leadership and the hard decisions they have had to make. But I am humbled by the extraordinary vision of our pastors who are chasing the plan God has for their churches and Christian education.”

Those churches and schools include Oceanway Kids Learning Center, which is associated with Oceanway Church in Jacksonville, Florida. Under pastor Al M. Force’s leadership, in December 2019 the church took over Just for Kids, an infants-through-preschool learning center. For 17 years, Just for Kids had been a for-profit learning center under the Florida Department of Children and Families supervision. Just for Kids closed, but Oceanway Church renamed the venture and opened it as an ILCS-accredited preschool.

Oceanway welcomed its first 68 students just before the pandemic hit. When the state shut practically everything down, including all schools, Oceanway Kids Learning Center remained open. The state deemed it an essential service, because the center served many first responders and military families. Oceanway invested in COVID-19 protections and stood ready to serve the community.

“Rather than react to what could happen, and be fearful and close, we decided that we would figure it out,” Force says. “And God has blessed us.” Today, Oceanway has 89 students and remains financially solvent.

Cloverhill Christian Academy, associated with Cloverhill Church in Richmond, Virginia, has taken the same attitude. Pastors Stan and Angie Grant launched Cloverhill Church in 1997. Soon afterward, they started a preschool, serving children ages 12 months through prekindergarten, which became a model of success for years. When the state of Virginia ordered restrictions, Cloverhill moved to a virtual assistance program, offering such events as story time on Facebook Live, as well as opportunities for children to see and connect with their playmates and teachers.

As the lockdown continued, however, the Grants discovered many parents felt apprehensive about sending their kids back to public school, yet needed a safe place for them to stay while the parents returned to work. The school already had incorporated safety and health measures to reopen for in-person learning. Cloverhill expanded its efforts, hired more staff, and opened its building to students from five local elementary schools so those learners could study virtually.

Cloverhill also started a kindergarten program in August and began working with ILCS to gain accreditation. Within 30 minutes of registration opening, the first classroom filled to capacity at 16 students. So Cloverhill again expanded, hired more staff, and opened a second class for 16 more enrollees, which also immediately filled. The school currently has a waiting list of 10 children for a third class to open.

“We’ve looked at this as an opportunity for outreach for our church,” says Angie Grant, executive director of the school. “We’re meeting families’ needs in our community, especially because kindergarten is extremely hard for students to do virtually.” All combined, Cloverhill now serves 260 students.

Schools remain vigilant for any outbreaks of COVID-19 and have in place stringent health and safety policies, such as daily checks of temperature, mask mandates, and practicing what Grant calls “good physical, not social, distancing.” Cloverhill Christian Academy also includes a center buddy system, in which children are paired up in order to more easily trace any outbreaks. Neither Cloverhill nor Oceanway Kids Learning Center report any COVID cases.

Through Trinity’s check-up efforts and strict COVID policies, the school has identified 60 students and nine teachers who have tested positive since the beginning of the school year. In each case, Trinity required those testing positive to quarantine and monitor the situation.

Ginger Kolbaba

Ginger Kolbaba ( www.gingerkolbaba.com) is a speaker and author who lives in the Chicago area. She is the author of Your Best Happily Ever After and co-author of Breakthrough: The Miraculous True Story of a Mother's Faith and Her Child's Resurrection.