Challenges and opportunities
Everyone has, at one time or another, lived through a crisis that touches a country or group of countries involving a natural disaster or sociopolitical turmoil.
We sometimes witness how an entire continent suffers from significant changes affecting economies and ways of life for some time. The disastrous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, are unique in their worldwide consequences to virtually every aspect of life. This includes Adventist education.
The worldwide Seventh-day Adventist education system serves nearly 2 million students and employs more than 100,000 teachers, providing Christian instruction from kindergarten to graduate levels. Adventist schools faced many challenges but also found new opportunities in the midst of COVID-19. We explore some of these here.
During the period of March and April 2020, depending on when COVID-19 struck various regions, Adventist education began the lockdown. This included the closure of schools, colleges, and universities, and the transition from face-to-face to distance instruction. All institutions had to face the rigors of this unexpected, unprecedented change when both Northern and Southern Hemisphere schools were in session. Many higher education institutions managed well, for they had been offering some distance learning in the past. Others faced insufficient infrastructure and limited expertise of both professors and students. Elementary and secondary schools were, by and large, unprepared for the new modality and also faced financial struggle.
Many Seventh-day Adventist schools in European countries continued to receive government funds (normally to pay for teachers’ salaries). In other locations, such as New Zealand, students were given laptops and iPads, which would become school property after the pandemic. In less-affluent regions, schools simply had to suspend instruction. Some attempted to use hard-copy materials physically delivered by teachers to students’ homes and picked up again for assessment. Unfortunately, a few small, mostly rural schools had to close by the third month of the pandemic.
These are perhaps the most common challenges faced by Adventist education:
- Implementing online instruction when teachers were inexperienced in this approach.
- Finding valid and reliable assessment alternatives to evaluate from a distance.
- Teaching students who lacked devices or did not have Internet connections.
- Suffering heavy financial losses because of decreased income from parents who had lost their jobs and could not afford to pay school tuition.
- Closing dormitories and sending students home with room-and-board refunds.
- Losing church appropriations because of lack of member contribution.
- Reducing teacher and staff salaries to half or reducing staff through furloughing or permanent dismissal.
- Being unable to plan financially because of an anticipated but unknown reduction of enrollment.
- Attempting to preserve spiritual life online (as much as possible) while foregoing mission trips, vespers programs, or outreach activities to the community.
Adventist schools everywhere have faced significant challenges, but the situation for some schools is dire. Take, for example, schools in the West-Central Africa Division, where education director, Juvenal Balisasa, estimates that 30 percent of elementary and secondary schools will be permanently closed if things continue unchanged over the next months. This would mean the loss of 400 institutions in that part of the world. To a lesser extent, the situation is similar in other regions.
Apart from the struggles, Adventist institutions are developing new strengths. Practically every area of the world reported unprecedented creativity and adaptability on the part of teachers, parents, and students to continue to provide quality education under the circumstances.
After witnessing the schools’ efforts, many parents now have a higher appreciation of Adventist education. One parent with a child in a South Pacific Division school wrote to the teachers: “You are deeply appreciated. Thanks for redeveloping material and platforms for remote learning. You are more than teachers; you love and mentor our young men and women.”
Several regions reported additional students joining Adventist education because, by contrast, it was a better option under the pandemic. Their enrollment expectations are higher because of the public’s perceived enhanced quality.This has been the case in schools in Central America, Australia, Samoa, Tonga, and East-Central Africa.
These adverse times have brought closeness to each other, closeness to God, and overall revival and reformation. Most families have enjoyed more time together, more Bible reading , and more prayer, according to reports from Africa. An increase in volunteers for various outreach and community services has been observed in Asia and the Americas (North, Central, and South), in which students have participated in food distribution and Internet-based health education in their respective communities.
Karla León, a teacher at an Adventist school in Costa Rica, designed Bible classes with music for her class using Zoom. The mother of one little girl became interested and participated in the Bible activities. Soon after, she and her family, including her husband, accepted the beauty of the Sabbath truth and are now keeping the Sabbath regularly.
Online teaching has become the predominant mode where available. Technologically advanced institutions often collaborate by sharing resources with other schools with fewer assets. Furthermore, administrators have reevaluated their attitude toward online learning and digital communication and are likely to further promote and invest in it in the near future. Certain countries have already set themselves goals to incorporate more hybrid education once the pandemic is over. Brazil has decided to have at least 20 percent online teaching across all its schools.
In many cases Adventist schools have gone to extraordinary lengths to accomplish their mission, and these efforts have been recognized publicly. For example, a school in Korea was recognized as best online learning school in the province of Gangwon. Students from Northern Caribbean University won the United Nations contest entitled “Reducing Inequalities in Education,” which consisted of educating youth and the public on reducing inequalities. Its thrust was to do it with Christ-centered education.
Even the financial burden caused by the pandemic has prompted institutions to develop innovative ideas and practices. Schools in the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division and in the South American Division have been raising funds by manufacturing masks, sanitizers, and other commodities needed at this time. Many around the world are discovering that some face-to-face meetings can easily be conducted with similar results via video conferencing, thus saving time, money, and energy.
We can never know if the growth resulting from the experience will outweigh the losses—they cannot be compared. But we can hold on to God’s many promises, such as this one: “The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (Ps. 121:7, 8, NIV).
Please pray for Adventist schools all over the world, especially in areas the pandemic has hit hardest. We can support educational personnel and students with our words and provide moral and financial support according to our ability.