Dear Siblings in Christ:
In this week’s lectionary account of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), Jesus follows up with a clear explanation of what the story means. And yet, I ended up thinking about our context, too.
This is a time when, for sectarian purposes, misinformation is getting sown among accurate information and it’s hard to tell what’s false and what’s true some days. Thousands of people have gotten sick and died because of this. Having to take the time to sort out partisan motivations from facts was always resulting in the deaths and suffering of people before the pandemic and – as we move further into this presidential election and pandemic season – this condition has become only more acute.
Most recently, the one of the biggest public debates taking place has been about whether or not schools should open up this fall and it’s been all wrapped up in this weedy morass. Still, I want to try and write about it a bit, here, because I think there’s a part to play for our churches in this.
I know even writing about this, at all, might seem more than a little tone-deaf to many of you. Based on current increases in COVID-19 cases in our region and nationally, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that schools will be able to do anything but online learning this fall in most parts – if not all – of Washington, Alaska, and Idaho. Add to that the political nature of the debate and it might seem like I’m taking sides or not staying in my lane. I get it.
On the other hand, I’ve been reading and studying this topic and writing parts of this piece for several weeks now. The reasons for my interest are pretty straightforward.
- I have a seven-year-old child in the public school system.
- My sister is a public school kindergarten teacher who, currently, has a compromised immune system.
- Some churches are wondering if they might have a particular role in helping provide space for schools that need more space for physical distancing.
This is all very personal for me and relevant to emerging conversations in our churches. It’s a conversation that a school in your community might be initiating with you, soon.
I’ve read papers about reopening schools from the Centers for Disease Control, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Journal of the American Medical Association in addition to reading dozens of opinion pieces, news pieces, and listening to several podcasts. What I expected to be overwhelming was actually remarkably helpful. I looked at these organizational pieces, in particular, because I was seeking out places where these bodies disagreed with each other. I assumed they would.
However, all of these writings were actually pretty consistent with their central points. I’d summarize what they said like this:
- A full reopening of schools using pre-COVID conditions as the standard would be dangerous for the world. Continuing to have kids stay home from school would be the safest thing.
- However, continuing to do so in the same way we did over the last several weeks of spring will cause long term psychological damage, sociological harm, developmental harm, and educational deficits for students that will last lifetimes. This would be particularly true for students and families who live with varying degrees of oppression or developmental challenges in their lives. Children away from school are also more likely to suffer malnutrition, abuse, and have poor mental health.
- In fact, the risk of long-term damage for students from not having school-based interactions may be – from what we know now – greater than the risk students would face from exposure to COVID-19. Therefore, these studies and articles suggested, schools should work towards reopening as soon as possible but with significant safeguards in place for students, teachers, families, and communities. (Many of these articles said fall would be best but they were written during a time when the COVID-19 numbers were trending down)
If I was to sum up what I read, the question isn’t as much if we should open schools but how the schools can be opened safely and if they have the capacity to do so. Those of us in the church are familiar with this kind of questioning. It’s not about if or when we have in-person worship again but under what conditions we might be able to gather together for worship safely.
One significant part of all of the plans schools would need to have in place is having enough physical space between all the students and teachers to reopen safely. I and others in the conference have wondered if this is one of the places where churches might be able to help.
Our congregations are unlikely to be meeting in their buildings anytime soon. It’s still too dangerous and will be for, at least, several months more. From everything I’m seeing, I think we have to plan for worshipping in ways similar to what we are now through at least Easter season of 2021, probably longer. There is no vaccine. A significant number of our members are at the highest risk for both contracting COVID-19 and dying from it; the opposite end of the spectrum from most of those related to our school systems.
However, we’re still called to serve God and God’s people wherever we are and use what we have to serve God and God’s people. I do not believe that keeping our buildings closed is the best stewardship of the buildings God has entrusted us with if there is a way our buildings can serve God and God’s people in ways that are healthy and safe. I’ve often suggested that if our buildings can be used as safe shelters or medical facilities during this crisis, we should figure out a way to make them available. It’s this logic that has one of our camps serving as a Quarantine and Isolation Center for five counties and one of our camps providing a safe place for rest and respite for church employees and first responders. These activities have some risk, for sure, but we’ve been able to do these activities without incident because we’ve put together plans (in partnership with health professionals) that reduced the risks significantly. In the same vein, it’s worth exploring whether or not our churches might be good partners with schools in providing space.
I know this conversation and topic are complicated and, honestly, it’s going to get more complicated. There are several realities and questions that would need to be sorted out for schools and churches. Just to name a few:
- For churches, not every space is going to be suitable.
- Too many of our churches are not handicapped accessible.
- We might have a nice large space to offer but bathrooms, or handwashing access may not be sufficient.
- There may not be enough spaces for entering or exiting to allow for distancing.
- I’m paying a lot of attention to the relationship between ventilation systems and virus transmission. There is a growing body of evidence that some systems might spread COVID-19.
- I’m also paying a lot of attention to the ways bathrooms may have a role in spreading COVID-19
- If there is a financial agreement with a school (and, really, there should be) how might this change the property tax status of a church property?
- Among many other issues, some schools may not have enough teachers who are either in lower-risk categories or who consent to the risk of teaching during a pandemic.
- Particular classes or educational programs may have too many higher-risk students to meet in any sort of shared physical space.
- If it was appropriate for a school and church to work together, who would be responsible for the cleaning required in any space shared with a school?
- Would this be the responsibility of the school or the church? How might this effect any financial agreement or the costs?
- Who would be liable for injury or sickness in the church facility?
- If dealing with a public school, there may be some who question whether or not a government entity should be paying any fee to a religious organization or be meeting on their property.
Yep, it’s complicated. However, just because this might be a complicated conversation with a local school or school system doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start the conversation about offering our currently unused space. The costs of inaction for the people and communities we love and serve are simply too high. The sooner we start this conversation, the better.
There is an added, practical, benefit for churches that enter this conversation, too. All of the questions about the appropriateness of our physical spaces are questions we’re likely going to have to deal with at some point anyway. This pandemic is changing us and one of the things that is going to emerge is a new recognition of ways we can help protect our members from disease transmission. What we’re learning in this pandemic season will give us methods for dealing with other diseases that come our way in the future and diseases that we previously approached more fatalistically, such as the flu. Many of the ways we might have to consider changing our church facilities’ infrastructure in order to make the church safe for students are changes we would need to make to help make our churches safe for members.
As it gets closer and closer to fall, this conversation is only going to get more intense and more divisive. However, schools, parents, and teachers can’t make all the decisions they need to make without knowing all the resources they might have available to them. Our buildings have always presented us with a means of serving God and God’s people. During these days, we will be called on to serve through them in ways we couldn’t have previously imagined.
Rev. Mike Denton: Conference Minister of The Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Church of Christ. You can give to the ministries of the Pacific Northwest Conference by going to www.pncucc.org and clicking on the “Donate” button.Follow me on Twitter @denton_rev