How are Uniting Church schools supporting their students?

How are Uniting Church schools supporting their students?

As preventing the further spread of COVID-19 requires people to socially distance from others, schools have seen several students stay home and continue their education online. Uniting Church schools are among those now supporting students whose lives have been profoundly disrupted by a global pandemic. Insights spoke to some of the school chaplains about what schools are doing to adapt, and what they have learned over this time.

Rev. Jon Humphries is the Chaplain at Ravenswood School for Girls in Gordon. He also teaches Religious Education at the school.

Ravenswood has maintained their chapel’s regular timetable but moved these online. Due to time pressures, the first few were pre-recorded.

“We also did the same with our Easter assembly on Tuesday, but it also included an online communion service, which students were able to prepare for in advance and then follow along and participate as they watched the video,” Rev. Humphries said.

“This week I have taken up the opportunity to use our online learning platform and develop a Chapel space. Whilst the service was still pre-recorded for this week, it was broken into segments and had links to video content on YouTube. This online platform will allow for the inclusion of chat spaces, forums and to take up some other engaging platforms such as Menti-meter and Kahoot.”

Rev. Punam Bent is the Chaplain at Pymble Ladies’ College. She said that the school was offering weekly online assembly meetings and offered prayer and messages of hope.

Pymble Ladies College has also offered weekly Chapel services for Prep, Junior and Senior Schools and a podcast named Revpod for our Senior School students.

“We also engage in mentoring students from year 11 and 12 so have been given permission to video chat with them on Microsoft teams,” Rev. Bent said.

“We have a pastoral care list as well of students who are on our list for follow up.”  

Graduating in a pandemic?

As might be expected, some students have identified feeling isolated, as well as anxious about finishing school during the pandemic.

“Students especially year 12s are concerned about how they are missing out on their last year of school so yes their experiences as well as students just missing out on the company and extra- curricular activities,” Rev. Bent said.

Rev. Humphries echoed these sentiments.

“The year 12 students are concerned about what will happen in terms of HSC and IB and getting into university,” he said.

“However, hope is also fading around the rites of passage that comes with the end of Year 12 as each announcement from the government confirms the likelihood that many of these events will not be able to take place.”

“There is some worry about disease, but not as much as one might expect. There are families who are feeling the impact of job loss, and for some of our families, online learning in a family space is also stressful. For our overseas students, many are trying to work online, but time zone differences, restrictions from their government around internet access and the financial pressure on their families, many for whom the daughter’s education is one of the largest expenses, cause them to feel a sense of stress and also guilt.”

Rev. Bent said that parents could help by checking in on their children.

“We would recommend times of conversation and caring, as well as connecting with family and friends over the platforms offered by technology. For children who are undergoing mental health conversations and health checks, ongoing communication with doctors and mental health providers or school counsellors is recommended.”

Rev. Humphries added that how parents spoke to their children was also important.

“It can be helpful if parents are mindful of the way they phrase questions,” he said.

““What’s on today?” or “What are the interesting activities that you are going to have on in [insert subject name]?” are likely to be better received and more encouraging, than “How much work have you got to do today?” or “Have you done all your work?””

“In saying that, it is good for parents to have copy of the timetable or work set, so that they can touch base with their kids and ask how things went or if they need help with anything. Finally, it is really unhelpful even if we think it might be funny, to photo bomb online lessons.”

Challenging times

The rapid pace of adapting to the new modes of delivery has been challenging for the chaplains, who nominated technology and overload as key difficulties.

“This has been a learning curve for us, and even though we have been wanting to do things like publish our podcasts, the necessity in these times created an opportunity and the time to create this,” Rev. Bent said.

“We don’t know the length of this ‘lockdown’ but do know that we have to reach out to our individual school communities like never before.”

“There are lots of challenges with this, over and on top of the stress of the circumstances and the restrictions to our normal way of living,” Rev. Humphries added.

“Online learning takes about three times the effort to pull off for teachers, and the screen based learning in one spot for the whole day without the normal connection with their tribe, is challenging for students,” he said.

“We are doing really well, most of us anyway. It has awakened creativity and stimulated thought about how to do things differently, and this can be a bit thrilling and exhilarating and lead to improvements in what might have been the pattern before, but it is also really tiring.”

“Everyone is learning new ways of doing things, new protocols and new software etc, and there is a fair bit of cognitive overload happening, so one of the most appreciated things to come out of all this is the spontaneous expressions of gratitude. The little email, or feedback from kids or colleagues appreciating effort or what was offered can literally bring tears to one’s eyes when they are received.”

Rev. Humphries told Insights that he has been sharing an email with some encouragement with staff each day.

“It might be a prayer, or a reflection or just an appreciation of what they have been going through. The Church is being presented an amazing opportunity to witness to our faith and demonstrate the power of faith and hope that we have in the love of God. Of course that is not why COVID-19 has arisen, but in the hardships and trying times that have resulted, people are appreciative of genuine sharing of the hope and support that we find in God and how it has the real ability to carry us through these troubling times.”

Despite the pandemic, schools are continuing with their community engagement. Rev. Humphries, highlighted for example how Ravenswood’s Year 7 students were making place mats/dinner tray covers for a nearby retirement home as part of ongoing community work.

NSW & ACT Moderator Simon Hansford said that he had been impressed with the schools’ efforts during the pandemic, “From both…current and past students, to provide care and service to many who may otherwise have missed out.

“I am already proud of our schools, and this story only gives breadth and depth to the cause for that pride,” Rev. Hansford said.

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