Religious education programs prepare for classes amid pandemic

The Yankee family of Holy Name Parish in East Nashville prays the Stations on the Cross in their front yard on Good Friday, April 10, 2020. The Diocese of Nashville’s Office of Faith Formation has issued a framework to help parish religious education programs proceed this fall while protecting students and teachers from the spread of the COVID-19 virus. At-home religious education will become more common this year; a number of parishes will provide materials and guidance for parents to help them serve as the primary catechists of their children. Tennessee Register file photo by Theresa Laurence

Just like schools, parish religious education programs have been forced to figure out how to provide instruction in the midst of a pandemic.

The Diocese of Nashville’s Office of Faith Formation has issued a framework to help parish religious education programs proceed this fall while protecting students and teachers from the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“One thing my office really wants to do is to allow the parishes to approach this in the best way for them,” said Joan Watson, diocesan director of faith formation. “There’s no one size fits all because our parishes are so different” in terms of size, demographics, resources and facilities.

“My office has offered a framework for reopening, without imposing a lot,” Watson said.

The elements of the framework have become familiar during the pandemic: if the classes are meeting in person, deep clean the rooms; encourage frequent hand-washing; maintain social distancing in the classrooms; catechists will have their temperature checked when they arrive at the parish; parents should monitor their children for symptoms and check their temperature before bringing them to class.

It’s a bare bones approach, Watson said, but parishes can adapt the framework further to meet their specific situation and needs.

The decision about whether to offer in-person instruction or distance learning was left to the parishes, Watson said.

“Our program this year is going to be virtual,” said Britney Bussell, coordinator of religious education at St. Christopher Church in Dickson.

“We don’t have space in our classrooms to space our children out in a way that I would feel comfortable for the safety of our kids and our teachers,” she said.

Catechists at St. Christopher will e-mail the lessons to the family, who will be responsible for completing the work and turning it in each week, Bussell explained.

The classes preparing for their First Communion and Confirmation will meet in person several times throughout the year. “We do want to check in with our parents when we can,” Bussell said.

Holy Family Church in Brentwood is adopting a hybrid approach. The sacramental grades will meet in person once a week, while the rest of the classes will work from home, accessing their lessons online, said Catherine Birdwell, director of religious education.

When the class completes a chapter in their curriculum, the students will be assigned a video conferencing session with the catechist, Birdwell said. “It’s a way to keep that connection.”

Members of the parish’s religious education staff also will be checking in with parents on a regular basis to keep those lines of communication open, Birdwell said.

In past years, Holy Family has had six sessions a week, and parents could pick the session that was most convenient to their family’s schedule, Birdwell explained. This year, there will be four sessions for the sacramental classes, two on Wednesdays, one Sunday morning and one Sunday evening, she said.

The sacramental classes will meet in the larger spaces on the Holy Family campus rather than in classrooms so they can maintain social distancing, Birdwell said. “We’re getting very creative on our space. We’re using every large space we have available.”

The programs at many parishes will be relying on parents to play a role in educating their children, so they are providing resources for parents. “It’s easier for parents to be a real part of this,” Birdwell said.

“One thing we’re really trying to focus on is not overwhelming the parents,” Watson said. “The parents have a lot on their plate, we don’t want to burden the parents, but we want to support them as the primary catechist of their children, the primary teacher of the faith. …

“One thing is to help them with their own knowledge of the faith so they pass it on in an organic way,” she said. “We want to encourage the faith to be lived in the domestic church.”

When catechists prepare to teach a lesson, they learn a lot about the topic as well, Birdwell said. She’s hopeful parents will find the same thing. “We’re giving our families the tools to be the domestic church,” Birdwell said.

St. Christopher will begin this year’s religious education classes on Sunday, Aug. 9, Bussell said. So far, registrations have been slow, she said, totaling about 40, compared to last year’s enrollment of 150.

“I think part of that is people weren’t sure what the fall would look like,” Bussell said. Also, with attendance at Sunday Masses limited, it put a dent in the number of people who would stop by after to Mass to register their children for class.

“We typically do online registration and in person,” Bussell said. “This year, the in-person registration didn’t really happen.”

“Just in the last couple of weeks we’ve seen a rise in registrations because we put the plan out for our program for the year,” Bussell said.

She is hopeful even more families will register at a parish book fair planned for Saturday, Aug. 8. The students already registered will be able to come by to pick up their books for the year, arriving at staggered times to maintain social distancing. In-person registration will also be available at that time, Bussell said.

Holy Family will start its classes on Sept. 9, and Birdwell is expecting more than 1,000 students to register for the program, which is typical even for a non-pandemic year, she said.

“The numbers were slow at first, but they’ve picked up,” Birdwell said. “We put out the plan about a month ago. I think (parents) are trusting what we’re doing, which is always important.”

Watson hopes that all the parish programs will focus on “what is essential for these kids to know and what’s essential for their parents to know, and really lean in on the essentials.”

She praised the work of the parish directors of religious education in preparing for the year. “They have been so eager to brainstorm, to think about ways to bring formation in a safe manner,” Watson said. “Nothing in our past has prepared us for this new reality. … I’m so impressed with their willingness to make this possible.”