The coronavirus is forcing public schools to rethink how they will educate students this fall which, in turn, is forcing churches to rethink how they will minister to neighborhood schools.
“We’re having to find ways to think outside the box,” said Dennis Boswell, a retired middle school principal and coordinator of a ministry at St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., that for nine years has related to nearby St. Matthews Elementary. “They don’t want us there right now. And the bottom line is we probably don’t want to be there, either. But we are desperate to find ways to help them.”
Most frustrating, though, is the uncertainty. “We’re not sure what the solutions are because we’re not sure what school is going to look like,” Boswell said.
What the emerging school year looks like varies from state to state and even district to district. Boswell and St. Matthews Baptist face one situation in Louisville, while 70 miles away in Georgetown, Ky., Sharon Felton, minister to students at Faith Baptist Church, faces another situation.
Felton also serves as coordinator of Pastors for Kentucky Children, an advocacy group supporting public education statewide. In that role, she’s helping churches across the Commonwealth share ideas and adapt their ministries.
“We have encouraged people to partner with schools even more now because everything is so up in the air and crazy,” she said.
The first step for churches desiring to help public schools is simply to ask principals and teachers what they and students need.
“Go talk to them and listen,” Felton said. “They might say, ‘I don’t know,’ but they eventually will come back if they know they can trust you to honor the separation of church and state.”
And never show up with food or materials that haven’t been requested, she added. “I talked to one lady at a school who said, ‘I don’t need any more pizza but some of the students need pants.’ Don’t help without asking.”
Meanwhile, many churches are getting creative during the pandemic by finding alternative ways to offer tutoring and one-on-one reading help online.
With buildings empty, some churches are exploring safe ways to convert their unused spaces into computer rooms for students who lack adequate internet access at home. Another idea is to invite families to use church Wi-Fi while sitting in vehicles in parking lots.
Some churches are making stay-at-home bags containing food and supplies for students studying at home and therefore lacking access to free breakfasts and lunches. Others are filling requests schools have posted through Amazon Wish Lists. Starbucks and other gift cards for teachers are an emerging trend.
“Teachers are beyond stressed,” Felton said. “They didn’t sign up to be online teachers, and they didn’t sign up to be in a classroom with 30 kids during a pandemic.”
Faith-based groups in many places are providing personal protective equipment, or PPE, to schools that are returning to in-person sessions this fall, said Rachel Gunter Shapard, co-founder of Pastors for Florida Children.
“The way we did it at our school is to order them and have them shipped to the school,” said Shapard, a regional vice president for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Together for Hope initiative.
Florida churches face political challenges, too, because state government leaders have actively supported advancing private schools over public schools, Shapard explained. “Our governor has given more funds to virtual schools” and is pushing for the reopening of classrooms despite the state’s coronavirus spikes.
She’s also concerned about the needs of at-risk children lost in the turmoil of the pandemic and political wrangling. “We all have to step back and think about the kids in generational poverty. We need to be reaching out to our schools in our counties and finding out what they need.”
Looming over these already difficult decisions nationwide is President Donald Trump’s threat to withhold federal education dollars from districts that do not reopen classrooms for in-person learning.
Those threats — together with concerns for the health of students, faculty and families —seem to embolden ongoing political efforts to divert public education funding to private schools, including religious ones, said Charles Foster Johnson, founder and executive director of Pastors for Children, an ecumenical ministry that advocates for protecting and strengthening public education.
It is good and proper for churches to engage in direct local ministries with partner schools, but churches also need to step up and become advocates for public schools in general, Johnson said. “The provision of universal education has to be defended. If it becomes private, a lot of students will be left out.”
From its roots in Texas, Pastors for Children has established statewide groups in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina and Mississippi. In each state, these advocates focus on legislative issues and on helping churches launch and sustain grassroots ministries to support local schools.
Diverting tax dollars to private schools undercuts American and Christian values by increasingly limiting quality education to those who can afford it, Johnson said. That’s why Pastors for Children as a national movement opposes any legislative efforts to decrease per-pupil spending on public education or providing public money to private educational groups.
“Is it proper for me to take public dollars to subsidize a private road? No,” he said. “Education should not be a matter of the elite receiving it and everyone else being denied it. It ought to be provided to everyone.”
Despite the challenges of presidents, governors and legislators — not to mention a global pandemic — Johnson is far from pessimistic about the current state of public schools. Support is growing for faith-based public policy advocacy as are prayer and other support for educators and students on the grassroots level.
“Some say the pandemic spells the end of public education” he noted. “I think the opposite. We stand together to block the effort to privatize education.”
But more churches need to step up, he urged. “It’s a big job.”