Determining how to offer in-person learning in a safe environment was a huge challenge during the approach to the 2020-2021 school year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools faced many new and unique obstacles and opportunities. Mount Paran Christian School serves as a case study in how to deliver on programming while still meeting the rigorous demands of health and safety compliance, particularly with Christian Life events and events within the arts, both of which primarily took place indoors in the theatre of the Murray Arts Center. The school found itself balancing health and safety restrictions with staying focused on offering the fantastic programming families and students expected. What follows are key lessons learned to help schools remain innovative, no matter the situation, in providing new ways to execute great programming without missing a beat.
Chapel is an integral part of creating a Christ-centered environment at MPCS. As such, foregoing chapel was never a consideration. However, pulling off three chapels a week - one for each school division - for 1,200-plus students and staff was without its challenges, including how to create a meaningful worship experience while maintaining safety protocols.
The first priority was to determine the number of students who could safely congregate in the school’s Kristi Lynn Theatre to experience chapel “live” and in-person. Once it was determined one grade level could attend chapel in-person, the next question was how to deliver chapel to the rest of the school community. After considering many options, simultaneous live-streaming emerged as the best solution because it allowed students and staff to experience chapel “together,” helping maintain a sense of community.
As in the past, MPCS continued to offer dynamic worship from the chapel band and engaging messages from both staff and local pastors. Although the experience was not the same as when entire divisions worship together, this model still provided the opportunity to provide spiritual impact in the lives of students.
Though not ideal, the temporary move to a new worship format offered some long-term benefits. First, MPCS was pushed to consider a new means of community-building: live-streaming. Because of the experience gained through chapel live-streams, additional offerings were created. Instead of canceling events, modifications were made to allow them to continue via live-stream, such as the Spiritual Emphasis Days and the annual Night of Worship.
Second, MPCS was given the opportunity to share chapels with the larger school community. Many families, alumni, and supporters are now able to experience chapel together. Finally, adding this new technology has created opportunities for students to serve in new and unique ways as chapel “producers,” learning and running live-stream software each week.
PERSEVERING WITHOUT AN AUDIENCE
Just as Christian Life faced challenges delivering on its mission during the pandemic, so too did performing arts. In the realm of theatre, an audience is more than desired – it is essential. The audience serves as a collaborator in the process of bringing a playwright’s work to life. Performers derive much of their energy from the audience and seek the affirmation an audience provides. Without an audience, performers and the director may not realize the impact of their work and can be left feeling discouraged, frustrated, and unfulfilled. Performing to a virtual audience is not much of an improvement.
Overcoming this lack of an audience is difficult for the most experienced of performers, yet, when MPCS students found themselves in this position during the pandemic, they met the challenge head-on and rose to the occasion, learning that which students before them had not had the opportunity (or reason) to learn – performing to an empty house and live-streaming into the homes of families.
Students in dance, band, and orchestra found themselves challenged and adapted their approach to learning and performing, both on and off the stage. Visual arts students presented digital galleries in place of in-person art shows. Choral and band classes were shuffled to create more space to distance.
The performing arts faced unique challenges. For the middle school drama production, students performed only for a camera, working within the confines of physical-distancing restrictions. Scenes were rehearsed carefully and with masks. Blocking was intentional in spacing, while simultaneously upholding the integrity of the scene.
The cast of the high school fall show choir production faced the added complexity of choreography. The cast was carefully divided into three cohorts to prevent an entire cast’s exposure to COVID-19. Within each cohort, every performer had a “safe space” on stage to sing and dance, out of reach of other performers. Rehearsals were held via video recordings and Zoom, with the added benefit of student accountability and diligent work.
Meanwhile, the Murray Arts Center team was busy preparing the theatre for limited live audiences. Seating in the theatre was converted into “pods” of seats for two, three, or four. The technical theater team placed filtered fans in the slightly lowered orchestra pit to circulate the air. This same system was equally effective for the band, orchestra, and choral concerts. Instead of one large concert, two were held nightly to keep the time in the theater to a minimum. Between performances, the theater was cleared and fogged with a sanitizing spray. Theater capacity was reduced to roughly 25-percent, and ticketing was handled in-house, with each ticket carefully assigned.
While worshipping and performing in the pandemic was challenging, it created many great opportunities for innovatively thinking about how we do worship and events. Students were forced to stretch, learn, and grow perhaps more than even they thought possible. Faculty and staff faced challenges head-on, refusing to quit, instead developing innovative means to deliver on the school’s mission. This dogged, relentless pursuit of excellence resulted in more resilient students, teachers and staff who continue to remain the lead learner in their classrooms and offices, and an even tighter school community that is thankful for every moment, together.
Steve Kyle is the assistant head of school for Christian Life and the chair of the high school Bible department at Mount Paran Christian School. Kathleen McCook is the managing director of the Murray Arts Center at MPCS.