I am writing this in early April 2021, over a year into a pandemic, where I, like so many of us, are longing to return to normal. We miss coffee hour, hugs, and singing. We miss seeing each others' smiles and watching the children playing.
As more and more adults are vaccinated, some of our members are asking when we can return to in-person congregational life. Congregational leaders are asking the UUA for guidance, including guidance on when and how to have programming for children and youth.
As a parent, I understand this longing to be in person all too well! Our family is lucky in so many ways, but working while parenting and Zoom-schooling our kindergartener and first-grader is exhausting. Many families are not just exhausted, they are struggling. They don’t have the support of their employers, they have been directly impacted by COVID, family members have died, or their children and youth are struggling with anxiety or depression because of social isolation.
We are social mammals and we need to be together. Our teens need each other. Our children need each other. And we are still in a pandemic where vaccinations are not available for the youngest among us.
As a parent, I have been following the science around schools, COVID, and children closely. I wish we were able to give you clear, science-based practices and a timeline so you could get to planning. But because of the complexities of the unknowns of the new variants, the wait for vaccines for children and youth, and the wide ranging needs of different families, we can’t give you the information so many congregations are asking for.
Below you’ll find detailed explanations so you can understand the “whys” and communicate them to your members. At the end you’ll find planning tips that you can be doing now.
Science, Schools, and Variants
The CDC has recently released detailed science based guidance for schools. Congregations want to be able to use this guidance to plan in person programming and parents want to know why, if school is safe, church can’t be safe and why we aren’t already “re-opening” our buildings and programs for children and youth.
New COVID Variants
We are seeing the emergence of new, more transmissible variants. We need more data from studies conducted while these variants are circulating. Because some emerging data are casting doubts about current guidelines, we will need to be cautious, even in typical school settings.
Worryingly, some variants are more transmissible and cause more severe disease. In several states we are seeing more outbreaks among children and teenagers, more cases of long-haul COVID in children and teens, and more severe illness in younger adults. We don’t know the long term impacts of COVID for children or adults. What we do know is that as long as the virus is circulating, we’ll continue to see new variants.
Extracurricular Activities Increase Risk
Schools are under tremendous pressure to be open. They deliver essential services requiring communities to balance the risk of open schools with the need for the services schools provide. Each family is making their own decision about how to weigh the risks to their family of their children being in school physically.
We’ve learned from contact tracing that extra-curricular activities (e.g. sports teams) are contributing to clusters of new cases among children and youth. Physically reopening our own programs could create similar risks of transmission. By keeping our church programs online, we won’t be contributing to additional transmission that could shut down local schools.
In the weeks and months to come, we’ll get new data on COVID variants among children and youth so you will be better able to plan programs for your congregation that are as safe as possible. And yet, we think it’s wise to plan to be flexible. We do not know what new variants may emerge and how those will impact people including those already vaccinated. Our congregations should be planning to be flexible and be able to return to a remote-only congregational life if needed.
Current CDC guidelines (e.g. ventilation, cleaning, hand-washing, distancing) require staffing on par with those in a school. Congregations do not have that level of paid staffing and our volunteers (especially parents) are already tired.
Vaccination and Inclusion
Right now many parents of children and youth are not yet vaccinated. Individuals with higher risk conditions may have been vaccinated, but COVID is a risk to all. Focusing only on comparatively lower death rates for younger adults ignores the risks of long haul COVID: long term heart and lung damage, and other long term health impacts. With the new variants circulating, we are already seeing an increase in hospitalization rates for those in their 30s and 40s.
We also need to remember that not all adults will be able to be vaccinated. Some parents have allergies, immune conditions and blood diseases that mean they cannot be vaccinated. So until their children can be vaccinated, these parents continue to be at risk.
Children with High Risk Conditions
While children overall have a much lower risk of severe disease from COVID, some children (e.g. those with cancer, bone marrow transplants, type 1 diabetes, immune deficiencies, etc.) are at much higher risk. Imagine being the parent of a child with severe asthma, a chronic lung condition or multiple health issues that land the child in the hospital. Many children have multiple conditions that multiply the risk. Also consider our children who can’t wear masks due to sensory issues, who can’t refrain from touching or mouthing surfaces, and or who have high anxiety to get a fuller picture of the families who may be excluded from in-person gatherings now.
Families with children or parents at high risk for complications from COVID have been especially isolated. One of my children has a good friend who we haven’t seen in person for more than a year. They can’t even have a playdate at the park in masks, even when cases are low. These families who have been more isolated throughout the pandemic may include the families of some of your staff. We risk excluding them even more if we rush to return to in person without considering what inclusivity looks like for all of us.
Make Sunday Morning Radically Inclusive
Many congregations are focusing on a return to in-person Sunday morning with an online component as a way to be inclusive. For some areas of the country case numbers and rates of adult vaccination make this look like a near-term prospect.
What feels inclusive for many of your adults may not be fully inclusive of parents, children, and youth. Most congregations are finding it hard to include and involve children and youth in online worship. So, if online worship is the only opportunity to include those who cannot attend in person, it may serve to further exclude.
Take Your Time, Talk It Through
This is an important time to evaluate the deepest needs in your congregation. Remember we are social mammals. We need connection. We are all going to be a little socially awkward. Being together in person is going to bring up anxiety in many of us. Masks, social distancing, and hand-washing remind us that the threat of the virus remains, even once we are all vaccinated.
We need to plan intentionally to create the spaces that help us all slowly re-engage in ways that don’t ignore what we have experienced during the pandemic: the trauma, the disconnection, the deaths, the grief, the distancing, the fears, the conflicts in our relationships over safety, the lingering COVID symptoms, etc.
Focusing on Sunday morning may not be the place to focus our in person energy first. Doing a more usual Sunday morning worship and religious education both in person and online is going to take tremendous effort, time, and learning by your staff and volunteers. In many ways religious education online and in person will be twice the work. Asking this of staff will make it harder for them to focus on other important aspects of ministry such as rebuilding our church family connections.
There’s No One Simple Solution
We don’t have choices that are going to include everyone in one single program or event. And no one single event or program will mark our ‘return’ - we know that returning to in-person gatherings will be a transition, not an event. It is likely to be a series of small changes, ways of meeting a variety of needs in person, online, and outside. One small group may meet the needs of isolated elders, another teens whose mental health is increasingly fragile. Eventually, some families may connect on a playground while others continue to be served by activity drop offs or online children’s chapel.
Intentionally Engage Tensions
All of our congregations exhibited great creativity and resilience in pivoting last year, and we have learned so much collectively since then. This creativity and resilience is a skill that will serve our congregations in every situation we encounter going forward, including this one.
And, this is a time of growing tensions as many are more comfortable being in person and yet others are still not safe. Many communities have increasing conflicts around reopening schools between different groups of parents. Congregations are not immune from this kind of conflict.
We leaders are also impacted, also exhausted, also prone to have disproportionate emotional reactions. Counteract this by moving deliberately, recognizing the complexity, and finding ways to tend the well-being of all.
What We Can Do to Get Ready
Spring is the time of year congregations traditionally begin planning for Fall. Planning this year won’t look like it usually does, but there is planning you can do. Here are some places to start:
Reach Out to Vulnerable Families
Reach out to parents and guardians to learn who will be the most hesitant to return to in-person community. Find out what their needs are and how to include their families. This in and of itself is a form of outreach, care and inclusion.
Reach out to all your families and find out what their deepest needs are, today. We have children and youth whose mental health has been severely impacted. We have families who lack childcare, have lost jobs, and have not had enough to eat. Understanding these traumas and needs is critical. Some families need some basic attended to before they would benefit from a return to in person church . Find out what they need most.
Build Your Team
The planning for the next year is complex and will need to involve multiple layers of leadership in your congregation. Your team needs to be more than your Minister and Board. It needs to include your Religious Educator, other staff, and key lay leaders of programs across the congregation. Lay led congregations need to include worship leaders and RE volunteers. Include input from members who might have medical risks, who have young children, and others whose experiences might not be represented. Being able to work together to understand the impacts of any decision across the communities within your congregation will help you avoid unintentional exclusion. Resist the pressure to rush back to “normal” and model patience, persistence, and inclusion.
Map the Considerations
Work with your leadership to create a map of all the considerations, including volunteers, building needs, staffing, technology, etc. One way to do this is through “Picture Forming” using a circle process to fully explore considerations before planning. Be sure to include leaders from all areas of your congregation so you’re fully aware of what you need to consider as you plan.
Here is an example: Planning for pre-COVID Sunday morning programming for children and youth took several months of work by your Religious Educator and RE leadership. Planning includes not just programming, but recruiting and vetting RE teachers, training the RE teachers, running registration for families, and more. If the leaders making decisions don’t understand this, they might be inclined to return to in-person worship at a speed that will make planning for the children and youth impossible.
Prioritize with Intention
Not only have our congregations created temporary innovations, we have discovered powerful new ways of doing ministry that we’ll want to continue. No congregation can do everything and so taking time to prioritize will help you put your energy where it will best serve your congregation’s mission. This may include not re-starting everything your congregation was doing before the pandemic.
Intentionally plan content. We need our experiences affirmed. We need to reconnect. We need space for creativity, grounding, movement. We need to reassure each other that our emotions are ok. We need to accompany each other through the rocky ground of reconnecting in a time of so much uncertainty. This will take intention and planning. This is particularly important with children and youth as many of their schools have jumped back into “normal” while ignoring the traumatic impact of the pandemic.
Ask your staff what the trade offs are. As you prioritize, ask your staff what they’ll need to stop doing to start anything new.
Tend to Your Building, Outdoor Space, and Safety Procedures
If you haven’t worked on your building’s physical and procedural safety from a COVID safety standpoint including your bathrooms and ventilation, use this list of questions to start this work. Even with widespread vaccination many of these things will be needed for some time to come.
If you have outdoor space, this may be a good time to think about how to create ways to use that space better. Many schools have created outdoor classrooms and you may be able to create similar spaces for programs for your community. Even if these aren’t used soon, having this as an option not only creates COVID safer options but can also just be wonderful ways to be together in the future.