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'Anything We Can To Stay In-Person': How Religious Schools Approach COVID-19 & The Vaccine Effort

Spencer Tritt

How have Christian schools been doing during the pandemic? Well, it depends on when you ask. After the spring upended education along with the entire economy, parents often pulled their kids out of parochial schools. The tuition, often upwards of $10,000-per-yearand sometimes beyond, was too expensive with many families furloughed or laid off.

But in the fall, it was a different story. When many public schools decided to keep students learning from home through the fall, some families jumped ship. They went to private religious schools that sold themselves as the “in-person option.” Peter Held is the principal at Rockford Christian High School.

“We've gotten a number of students from a variety of different local schools because they really need in-person education,” he said.

In the fall, Rockford Christian, like 60% of independent private schools, was in-person. Only 5% of private schools were fully online.

Now their enrollment is up, more than making up for the losses of early in the pandemic.

Both Rockford Christian Schools and Harvest Christian Academy in Elgin offered an online option as well. Harvest only has a handful of students learning remotely. Held says more than 80% of Rockford Christian students are in-person every day.

Harvest’s superintendent Talbott Behnken says they enforce mask-wearing. And they have small class sizes as it is, which helps keep the numbers down.

“We've had just a very small amount of [COVID-19] cases. I think we've had very few, probably four cases we've had. And we didn't even get our first case until after the end of November,” he said.

Held said they’ve had cases too, and quite a few quarantines to handle.

Religious schools have also had to adjust the way they practice faith. Gone are the days of packing the sanctuary full of students singing in their weekly chapel.

Harvest still holds chapel, but they separate students by grade level and space them out into sections. Rockford Christian has been livestreaming services directly to classrooms to avoid gatherings. But principal Held says that’s led to some unique opportunities via Zoom.

“We also connected with a few missionaries, and we talked with somebody in Romania. We also talked with somebody in China,” said Held. “It's good to get a perspective from them that we'd have never been able to have otherwise.”

As for typical COVID-19 safety precautions, both schools do internal contact tracing and coordinate with their local county health department. Behnken says they’re also honest about their priorities.

“We tell them also [that] our goal is to do anything we can to stay in-person,” he said.

Some school districts are approving contracts to do their own COVID-19 testing in the new year. Behnken says Harvest Christian Academy explored the option but it was too cost-prohibitive.

The vaccine rollout also begs new questions of religious schools. Many public schools and the Illinois State Board of Education are actively encouraging staff and the school community to get vaccinated. Will they do the same?

Peter Held says they’re providing information on how to sign up for vaccines but leaving it up to their discretion.

“I can tell you that every one of our faculty really wants to be done with this pandemic. And so, I think everybody wants on board with moving forward,” he said. “But I've had conversations with teachers and families and students that are all over the board. Some people are really excited, they want to be at the front of the line. Others are a bit hesitant and don't want to get it.”

Behnken said they’ve already had some nurses get their first dose. They participated in a survey from their county health department asking how many staff members were interested in getting vaccinated. He said the results went right to the health department and he didn’t ask what percent wanted it.

Behnken also says they trust their tuition-paying parents to make the best decision for their kids. He says they’ll be comfortable either way when student vaccinations are imminent.

“Were just kind of firm believers in people should do what they're convicted to do, particularly our parents. We tell them, we're in a partnership with them and we really thrive on that,” he said.

He says he does plan to get the vaccine. “I'm gonna get it. I don't have any concerns. I've kind of felt that way all along. I believe in medical science,” said Behnken.

Harvest and Rockford Christian had two of the Top-5 highest numbers of religious objections among Illinois schools to immunizations for viruses like measles and polio -- each had more than 40 in 2019.

It’s been a traumatic school year for every student, parent and teacher -- at any school. Matt Nyberg is the principal of Rockford Christian’s pre-K and elementary levels.

“The conversations of faith for a lot of people, and a lot of kids shifted from theoretical, like ‘When you face problems in life, when you get really frustrated, when it seems like nothing's going right,’ to a whole lot more tangible,” said Nyberg.

But for those schools, it’s been a godsend to have a common language of faith to center their conversations about the trauma of COVID-19.