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What’s different in the Religion Pillar during COVID-19?

COVID-19 has challenged us to re-think how we engage as a school community. The Religion Pillar’s specific challenges are how to offer meaningful spiritual nurture in our daily Chapel program, provide ample and accessible pastoral support to our students and families, teach our Religion classes effectively, and re-imagine ways to serve others while social distancing.

Daily Chapel:

Daily Chapel has been a significant part of the EHS experience from the beginning and has been described as the beating heart of our school. We gather as a community for spiritual nurture, to spend time with God, and to see our lives and concerns through a different lens. During uncertain times, Chapel is more important than ever!

For the 2020-2021 school year, there will be periods of time when we are on campus, socially-distanced, and off campus, connecting virtually. We have asked ourselves: What will make Chapel the best possible experience during this time? How might this be an opportunity to connect with students in ways that we may not have been able to achieve in our all-school Chapel services together? How can we help each student, faculty, and staff member grow in their faith? How will the beliefs and traditions of our Episcopal heritage shape and guide us, honoring and respecting the variety of religious experiences among our faculty, staff, and students?

The resulting plan includes a combination of in-person, virtual, and small-group “Family Chapel” experiences. When we are on campus, each grade level will have a designated day each week when they are in the chapel space for our service. When not in the chapel space itself, students will meet at Chapel time in their advisory classrooms, to either livestream the Chapel service or (on one designated day each week) have a more interactive small-group “Family Chapel” activity. When students are off campus, they will still join their advisory on Teams at Chapel time, to livestream the service together, or (on a designated day each week) have their “Family Chapel.” Along with these on- and off-campus Chapel offerings, students have access, through our school website and Teams, to resources and links that we hope will continue to strengthen their individual spiritual lives.

Daily Chapel is central to the EHS experience, and although social distancing makes that challenging, this time is an opportunity to connect in new ways, as we nurture the faith of our students.

Pastoral Support:

Pastoral care and support have been hallmarks of the kind of caring community that is Episcopal High School. While advisors, teachers, and grade level deans always stand ready to support our students, we also have counseling support that has been expanded this year. We have two full-time chaplains who are ordained Episcopal clergy. The Revs. Beth Holden and Art Callaham are available to offer pastoral care and counseling to students and staff. Ms. Alejandra Ortiz joins our staff this year as our full-time Choices Counselor, providing students with counseling and education opportunities, particularly related to high-risk behaviors and concerns. In addition this year, Mrs. Bridget Klee joins us as our Mental Health Counselor. When the school is operating in virtual mode, appointments with any of these support resources can easily be made by emailing the individual. When we’re on-campus, students are welcome to drop by our offices, which are located together on the first floor of the Convent Building. Whether we are on campus or off campus, we are available to meet with students.

Although meetings with our chaplains and counselors are treated with great confidentially, sometimes students with concerns may still feel reluctant to reach out to a counselor. They can find printed educational materials related to mental, emotional, and spiritual health by dropping by the chaplains’ office area in the Convent Building. There are also tremendous resources accessible through the “Daily Chapel,” “Pastoral Care,” and “Choices” pages on our school website, including a “Pastoral Care and Prayer Request Form,” through which students may request prayers or ask that a chaplain contact them.

Behind the scenes, the Student Support Group continues to meet to discuss students known to us who are struggling in any way: academically, emotionally, physically, socially, or spiritually, with the objective of identifying needs and creating an action plan to address those needs. The Student Support Group is made up of counseling and support staff, grade level deans, and administrative leadership. The grade level deans keep in very close communication with teachers and parents, regarding students who are struggling academically, and our frontline student supporters are our advisors and teachers, who have regular and often daily contact with our students. At EHS, there are many caring adults, who observe, listen, and pay attention, and when necessary, they can connect students with the appropriate support personnel.

Religion Classes:

Our Religion Department, like all our other academic departments, has worked tirelessly to revise curriculum and pedagogy and learn new technologies, in order to provide an exemplary learning environment for on-campus and off-campus learning. The curriculum is designed to provide an intellectually challenging study of scripture, an understanding of the historical background for and the theological foundation of Christian faith, an appreciation for other world religions, and the tools necessary for students to articulate their own theological and ethical positions for current and future application. On a more personal level, particularly during this period of COVID-19, the Religion teachers focus on connection: making concerned connection with their students, guiding students in the ways they connect and communicate with each other, and helping students make connections with the subject matter in meaningful ways.

Service to Others:

While arranging for service projects during this period of social distancing presents a challenge, the Students of Service organization (SOS) continues to keep service-mindedness in front of us. The Freshman Service Experience is delayed until the spring semester, but all students will have an opportunity to engage in service in some form in the fall semester. In Chapel, we will learn about and pray for the needs of our neighbors. Virtual service opportunities will be organized and publicized. Some may take place during Chapel time, some may be after school, and others may be organized for asynchronous participation. Last spring, students designed and wrote letters and cards for recipients of the Abundant Harvest food pantry, for first responders through Operation Gratitude, and for the patients and medical care workers at Methodist Hospital. Students could also sign up to assemble and drop off boxes of food for the families at Small Steps, a program that operates two preschools for at-risk children. During the 2020-2021 school year, we envision similar approaches to service, as we also find creative ways to continue to love and serve our neighbors at our four service partners -- the Beacon (homeless services), the Gardens of Bellaire (an assisted living community), the Nehemiah Center (for at-risk children), and the Women’s Home – in ways that are safe for all.