On a Monday morning at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lancaster, school children are busy doing online classwork and enjoying lunch in the church meeting hall.
Not far away, their school, Fulton Elementary School, is operating virtually. When the 2020-21 school year opened in September, the School District of Lancaster decided that classes would be held remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That meant that Fulton students would be learning at home,” says the Rev. Amanda Knouse, rector of St. John’s, at 321 W. Chestnut St.
For years, the church has offered an after-school program called Eagles Nest, with some 22 youngsters spending their late afternoons at the church hall until their parents or guardians can pick them up.
Last spring, the Eagles Nest was grounded when schools shut down because of the coronavirus. When schools eventually reopen for in-class learning, the Eagles Nest is expected to return.
Then Knouse and her congregation had an idea. Why not use the facilities to provide a place where online students can access their school work in a safe, friendly setting with free Wi-Fi, snacks, lunch, break-time activities, and extra help with their classwork?
It would give harried parents a break, so that they could get work done, run errands or just get a little time to themselves.
“We have the space and we have the volunteers,” said Knouse, noting that nearly 20 people offered to volunteer for the program.
They decided to call it The Village because, as Knouse explains, it really does take a village to raise a child. The Village has turned into a meaningful partnership between St. John’s and Fulton Elementary School. It is a safe place for students to gather for academic and social support two days a week.
‘How is this free?’
Right now, they are offering The Village on Monday mornings and Wednesday mornings and afternoons. They have just five children in each session now, with as many as 10 volunteers to be there if students need some extra help and supervision as they do their online classwork. They also provide a bagged lunch each day at The Village.
“Parents are amazed when they ask me how much it costs. When I told them it’s free, they ask me, ‘How is this free? That can’t be possible,’ ” Knouse said.
It is possible.
By offering a free program, St. John’s is serving the community with a service that helps families during these challenging times. Many families are trying to juggle their own work with schooling children online. If they have several children, the task can be even more overwhelming.
The Village gives frazzled parents and guardians a much-needed break. They know that the children are in good hands. The volunteers have to meet child security clearances. A few of them are retired teachers.
Since the church hall is so large, it’s well-suited for social distancing, and children can be seated with plenty of space between them. Everyone is required to wear masks and temperatures are taken at the beginning of each session. There is plenty of hand sanitizer and children are encouraged to wash their hands frequently.
The church is equipped with Wi-Fi, something that not all children have access to. The schools issue iPads and other devices, but having access to the internet is a must to use them.
Each child gets a bagged lunch provided by the church, which might consist of a sandwich, sliced cucumbers, apple slices, and healthy trail mix. The children get to take breaks, so they can move around and relax with activities like puzzles, games, and doing artwork.
Right now there are 5-6 children in the program, and Knouse thinks they could accommodate as many as 15 to 25 children, and still maintain the required social distancing.
“We are letting people know about the program on the Fulton school website,” Knouse said. “We still have room for more.”
As the parents of an 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, Knouse and her husband John are aware of how challenging the school shut-downs have been for children. Their daughter has missed her friends and being in the classroom.
“So many children are really struggling with the transition to online learning, and their parents are very stressed. It’s been rough for everyone,” Knouse said. “I think all parents are realizing just how much teachers do for our children.”
At The Village, students get to have the social interaction they have been missing since March, when schools closed all over the state. Until Lancaster schools can safely reopen for in-class learning, children have a safe place to do their online work and feel the support of The Village.
“And parents get a much-needed break,” Knouse said.