First Day School in the wake of Covid-19

In late spring of 2021, my monthly meeting began preparing to return to in-person worship in June. We made the transition to hybrid worship-some folks in the meetinghouse and some on Zoom-pretty easily.

Early in the process, God laid it on my heart that we needed to have in-person first day school (FDS) when we returned to the meetinghouse. One reason was to have childcare for our clerk and other parents to be able to attend worship. Another reason was that in the 15 months when we only had Zoom worship, the children and parents had been clear that the kids did not want to participate in another Zoom activity on Sunday morning. A couple of Friends tried to stay in touch with families during the pandemic, but it wasn't very successful as a religious education program. The best thing they did was organize a fifth Sunday intergenerational online meeting for worship with pets. 

• • •

In deference to the pandemic health restrictions, we decided a few things. First, we would not return to the small classrooms upstairs in the meetinghouse - even though they were freshly painted during the first year of the pandemic. We would hold FDS outside, under a tent that had been erected on the grass by the school attached to our meeting. And second, we would begin with brief lessons and plenty of time to play outside. Third, the lessons part would start with getting to know each other again.

I committed personally to being there most weeks and finding a second adult to join me, or finding two adults to be there on weeks I was not. Some of the Friends who had been teaching before came back, and some had moved on in their commitments. A parent volunteered to follow through on the child safety policy requirements, like background checks, etc. 

We had previously not had much of a tradition of snacks in our First Day School, maybe because we always had a robust offering during 'hospitality' or "coffee hour." Since we would be meeting outside in the Philadelphia summer, I started bringing individual juice pouches - popular and pre-portioned - that could offer some hydration, some blood sugar, without a risk of sharing germs. It wasn't very environmentally sound but it seemed like the best solution under the circumstances.

I bought a set of a dozen clipboards to use to write or draw on, and I brought some oil pastel crayons and colored pencils and a surplus sketchbook from my house to have tools that children from 3-12 could use. We encouraged the kids to bring a blanket or towel to sit on if they wanted.

We changed our tradition to have kids sit with their families for the first 15 minutes of worship so that they could arrange where to sit with social distancing and not have to disrupt where other people were sitting at the end of worship. And so parents didn't have to defend space all through worship in order to have a place for their kids to sit when they came back. This also meant that the FDS program mostly started with everyone together, instead of dribbling in. When families were more than 15 minutes late, the kids just joined us outside - no problem.

Kids came-and they came back. Their parents reported that the kids were looking forward to coming to meeting. So I considered that a success.

By the end of the summer, we settled on a loose rotation of one week of spiritual practices that help us feel closer to God, one week of a Bible or Quaker story, one week on the month's advices & queries about how we live our lives (as 3rd-6th graders), and one week of playing sports or games the whole time.

We were lucky that all the kids over 5 got vaccinated just before the weather got too cold to sit outside. We transitioned to meeting in the dining room where we had good ventilation, and no one was cooking anyway.  We're still wearing masks in the meeting house. And mostly when we're outside too.

I kept inviting more adult Friends to join us - to bring something for the content or just to be the second adult. And I set up a text group for last minute announcements to parents. By now, we have a pretty regular cast of characters. We have a regular rotation of teachers and we are renewing our background checks for continuing and new teachers. We have some kids who come (almost) every week and some who come once a month. We can incorporate new Friends any week, and we have a critical mass of participants to be sure that if you come, there will be a program for children and there will be other children there.

• • •

Every week, we start with "News of the Week" - we pass the clipboard around and each say our name, "reporting from Philadelphia," (like a broadcaster) and then whatever is news from our week. Like "my cousins came to visit" or "we had a half day at school and I played a lot of video games" or "I lost a tooth." Whatever is news for you. [This has been a great way to get to know each other better.]

The first couple of weeks we talked about what was different at the meetinghouse now and drew our family portraits (including pets). Then we spent a few weeks talking about God - what is God? How do we know? Does God hear our prayers?  

In late July, the yearly meeting organized a Sunday morning, in-person activity in conjunction with annual sessions. It was a program with separate groups for elementary, middle and high school kids, at the Historic Fairhill Burial Ground, (now a public park) where Lucretia Mott, among others, is buried. It was actually very close to our meetinghouse, and at one point was under the care of our monthly meeting. So we had one week where we learned a little bit about who Lucretia Mott was and how she was (tangentially) connected to our meeting. The next week we all met at the park, and the kids participated in small, age-appropriate groups run by the yearly meeting staff, and it was fun for everyone. The following week, one of the kids reported on the book about a black abolitionist that his family picked up from the Tiny Library in the park. 

We spent the whole month of August learning about prayer. As in, prayer can take many forms-it's between you and God. It can be in motion--a Friend who is an actor came and led some movement. It can be words that are already written. We read the 23rd Psalm and a friend came and led us in a song that is also a prayer. It can be a personal ritual-a Friend came and shared her personal prayer practices.

In September, we spent a couple of weeks preparing for World Quaker Day (first Sunday in October) by interviewing an older Friend in our meeting using the materials from the Africa QREC and FWCC Section of the Americas. Said older Friend also happens to be a documentary filmmaker so she took the footage home and edited it for us and we watched it together, and then showed it to the rest of the meeting on WQD and then sent it in to the WQD website

We started in November using the General Queries of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting on the first of each month that I translated into language appropriate for third graders. The kids have been genuinely interested in answering the questions and we have had some very interesting conversations about how we are living our lives, at home, at school, and at Meeting. 

In December, we started preparing food for the Meeting to share after worship. It's an activity, a snack, and a service project, all rolled into one. We have baked cookies and spread peanut butter on crackers and portioned out baby carrots into paper cups to make serving easy. It's different each month.

[In January, we were back on Zoom-only worship because of the covid-19 surge, so we didn’t have a children’s program for a few weeks. I promoted the yearly meeting’s online programs to anyone who wanted to participate.]

In February, we started, once a month, learning about Quaker distinctives. Why don't Quakers celebrate holidays, or do we? What does plain speech mean? How do we practice it now? What about oaths and music and communion? I have found that our kids didn't know these were part of Quaker tradition but now they are learning more of the depths of our Quaker practice-and talking about what is relevant to them, more than what it was like 200 years ago. I have been pleasantly surprised how engaged they are in the discussion. We just roll with the tangents and the non-sequiturs-everyone has something to say.

So now the content rotation is: first week: answering the queries, second week: playing games, third week: learning about Quaker faith and practice, fourth week: cooking for the Meeting. When there’s a fifth week, we are supposed to organize something for the whole meeting for intergenerational worship, but we haven’t actually done that yet. 

We have one baby who is regularly attending our Meeting, but still sleeping through worship much of the time, and cuddling with his parents the rest of the time. But we are ready when he is to welcome him to our program space - we have a plan and a brand new rug that is just waiting for someone to spit up on it.

• • •

For me personally, it has been a lot of work in the last year. But as I no longer have children at home, I had some time to give. I think it is important that parents don’t have to teach or supervise the children’s religious education program during worship, unless they really want to. For someone who spends her working days talking about how to build Quaker community, it has been a way to stay connected to my monthly meeting - both the joys and the tedium and the normal conflicts of community life. And it has been a way to channel my creativity and to talk about the spiritual things that matter to me. And I’ve gotten to know the kids (and parents) in my meeting a lot better, which is a blessing in and of itself.

Labels: , , ,

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]


Post a Comment

<< Home