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LESSONS LEARNED | Private schools in East Texas reflect on 2020

On top of COVID-19 concerns, quarantines and virtual learning, private schools are also trying to retain students during the pandemic.

TYLER, Texas — It's not just public schools facing challenges this year. Private schools in East Texas are dealing with the same COVID-19 concerns and quarantines. 

On top of that, they're also trying to retain students during a pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis.

Grace Community School and Promise Academy both joined our very first CBS19 Education Zoom Town Hall back in May helping us better understand what they were up against when campuses were closed down last spring. Nine months later, the Lessons Learned are even more profound.

"One is that the teachers are the frontline workers, right," said Sarah Cumming, Promise Academy Head of School. "And if a school system or an institution can give them what they need, they will do what they need to serve their students. And you know, without educators, we wouldn't have any other profession. You know, like, we know that. But in the middle of this, who is delivering the education, it's not the technology."

"Kids need to be in school," said Jay Ferguson, Head of School at Grace. "Based from our faith background, we believe that God makes us as incarnational beings that we need to be in community with other people that education is inherently a discipleship process. And discipleship is life on life. It's really, really hard to do it on the screen. "It's extremely hard to do it at the K-Five level, but it's still hard to do it at the 6-12 level." 

Jay Ferguson is the head of school at one of Tyler's largest private schools, Grace Community School, and Sarah Cumming leads Promise Academy, a smaller private school in Tyler. Both are passionate about doing whatever it takes to keep kids in school amid the pandemic.

"One of the things that we we learned is that what are acceptable risks, what are unacceptable risks?" said Ferguson. "And how do we balance that? How do we create an environment where our kids can learn in person, and yet where we can put reasonable protocols in place in order to help manage that risk? But doing that, in a brand new context, nobody knew what was happening. I mean, nobody, there was no best practices, because nobody had ever practiced it before."

"So, that's kind of how our decisions are made here is like, what makes it possible for us to be together?, Cumming said. "You know, cases started going up and so it's like, what makes it possible for us to still be together? We've got to pod kids, you know, so we're putting kids in groups of four, so that if someone gets sick, we can quarantine that little group."

The coronavirus created new challenges for schools to enact and enforce all new protocols to keep students on campus, like wearing masks.

"We took a position pretty early on that, whatever the science is on it, it's a community. It's a way to care for and love each other," said Ferguson about wearing masks on campus.

"Thankfully, we've been able to do a lot of the things that we normally do, we've just had to figure out how to do it. We started chapel in the gym, so we could spread everyone out really far. And so that meant setting the gym up every Wednesday, you know, so there's that additional work that had to happen," explained Cumming.

Another lesson learned was the challenge quarantining created for students, teachers and parents, anytime a child was exposed to COVID.

"Because you know, your kids are out for 14 days," said Ferguson.

"[You] try and figure out how to serve them best when you have the ones in front of you still, and how to not leave them out. And then, like to take care of yourself and actually rest when it's time," Cumming said.

"But with the new CDC requirements, and them kind of shrinking that time frame, I think that's going to be a real help to us as well," Ferguson said.

Transitioning in and out of remote learning isn't necessarily easy, but it did provide opportunities for growth.

 "It forced our teachers into a growth mindset, when you have to kind of retool your curriculum in a week's time to be ready to do virtual learning for kids in a high quality way. It forces you to, to engage in, in pretty fast learning, and it forces you into a growth mindset when you have to do school and a completely different way," Ferguson explained.

Ferguson believes it taught them a valuable lesson moving forward that will allow kids to remain in school, even when they can't be there physically. "We've got all kinds of situations, life situations, and maybe not that dramatic, but all kinds of life situations that our kids find themselves in. And it's just a better way to serve our kids and our families," Ferguson explained about virtual learning.

The pandemic also exposed some cracks in the American foundation of education with lack of access to technology.

 "Everybody gets educated, right?," said Cumming. "Um, but I think we realized how fragile that was, you know, that it that it just took everything shutting down and all of a sudden, we're back in a situation where it's not everyone having access anymore."

Private schools faced another uncertainty — would parents still be able to send their children to school during such uncertain economic times?

"You know, we've been, we've been challenged by it. But, I also think that because what we do here is so much different," Ferguson said. "The families that want what we're doing in the life of their kids are still want that. And you know, even if they had a momentary COVID setback, we're working with them to be able to continue to facilitate that and continue to make that happen for their family and for their kids. And so we're we're excited about being here to allow that to continue. I had a challenge in 2008 when the Great Recession hit. And two years later, I had our highest enrollment in the history of the school. So I'm confident in God's ability to continue to further his kingdom and do his work through Christian education and other things, despite things like COVID."

Both schools, more committed than ever to deliver quality, Christ-centered education to children who need them.

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