Partnering during a Pandemic: Supporting Education When School is at the Kitchen Table

Six weeks. 

As adults, we can reflect on our increased or decreased work loads, our loneliness or frustration with too much communication, and our access or lack of access to food.  For some, this time is having a positive impact on their physical health, mental health, and family relationships, for others it is not.  We can think about this and talk about this, and it is good to do so.

But what about the kids?

If you have children or youth or young adults in your home, and perhaps you are now navigating their educational life as well as every other aspect of their lives, you know that the kids are struggling with all the worries and feelings and good stuff and bad stuff surrounding this pandemic.

If you are connected with children and youth and young adults in El Salvador, perhaps you are wondering what their situations are like right now, what their worries are, how they are receiving education, or if they have enough food.  As ministry leaders or scholarship sponsors, you may also have questions such as: Should we be doing something with our scholarship students? Is there something we can do from far away to encourage students and families as they find themselves quarantined in small, crowded homes in small, crowded communities?

For about two weeks, I have been thinking about how to write a story about the kids in El Salvador, their quarantine experiences, and how their international friends can support them at this time.  I have struggled a bit to put together a thoughtful story, in part because I needed to do some research and gather information first hand via phone and text and message.  The other challenge is that the situation in El Salvador, like the situation globally right now, is quite fluid.  I know as soon as I put something into print, there will be new information, changes to government policy, a big rain storm, or a change in the behavior of gang groups.  Yet, I think it is important to share what I have learned thus far.

Depending on where a family lives, the quarantine experience creates a different level of isolation, confinement, and access to resources.  Just as in the US, children who live in the country on a little farm or open spaces can get outside for a bit of fresh air.  Salvadoran kids who live in urban or more crowded conditions must stay inside.  A couple of weeks ago, kids could sit outside of their front door to get some cooler air and do their studies, but now the enforcement of Stay Inside is strict and the police walk around checking on people.  For big families in tiny homes in densely populated communities, the inability to step outside is causing stress.

Homework station outside, when it was allowed

During the lock-down, each household in El Salvador has one designated person (with a signed document) who can go out to do the shopping* or banking.  People who have essential jobs in food production or healthcare or sewing masks can work.  People who have jobs in the formal sector are supposed to be paid by their employers and as in the US, people who can work from home are doing that.  The government provided each household with total income below a certain level with a stipend of $300 (no matter the size of the household) in March.  Almost all of the families that I talked with received this money and have spent this money.

After being in quarantine without working for 6-7 weeks, most families are scrambling to find a way to pay for food.  Some mayors have organized food deliveries in their towns (like El Paisnal).  Others have not.  It is not clear which organizations have some kind of authority to organize and deliver food, and as of now, the Lutheran Church does not have any kind of widespread, organized effort.  The federal government announced a basic basket food delivery program that will put a basket (valued at $50) into each of the households that qualified for the $300, but that delivery has not taken place yet.  I did receive a photo from a small town in the north where a nurse there organized a community donation plan to get food to those who need it.  (Side note:  The nurse is a scholarship graduate from our sister church community in El Salvador and she said the inspiration of her sponsors and her upbringing in the Lutheran Church contributed to her actions of service as a young adult leader in her community.)

Collaborate with the persons who are most in need.
Donate $1 or what's put upon your heart or basic grains.
(Here, with an arrow) (Viveres means food to keep you alive)

The 2020 school year began in mid-January.  In March, all schools and universities were closed.  University courses are currently being done online.  In many school districts (actually, in all of the cases I looked into), students from Kindergarten through High School are receiving assignments via WhatsApp.  They can communicate with their teachers this way, and they also submit their completed assignments using WhatsApp.  Older students also seem to have some access to online classes (with the teacher actually teaching), and groups of students have definitely set up chat groups for doing projects and consulting together.  Parents are responsible for monitoring their children's studies. 

Elementary student taking her turn at the table.  Some of the women
in this large household sew for a living.
Mom taking a break from sewing to help her daughter with school work

How do scholarships relate to the current academic situation for students in El Salvador who rely on them?  For university students, scholarship funds typically help to cover a portion of the registration fees paid in January and July, monthly fees, transportation and a food stipend.  During quarantine, the registration and monthly fees still apply.  The need to purchase internet access has become more important, and while meals are not being eaten on the go, food security is likely an issue for many students.

This university student is taking advantage of an open space at
the rear of her home, so she can concentrate on her studies.

For children and youth in Kindergarten through High School, a new need to purchase internet access (typically on smart phones) is part of the online study reality.  Student projects, experiments, etc all need to be completed in the home, photographed and submitted.  Project supplies can be purchased at the Super by the family shopper. Though bus money is not needed by students, there are clearly food, toilet paper and other expenses that now are incurred by the family instead of the school.  So, it seems realistic to me, that scholarship funds for younger students could be needed and helpful to families during this time of quarantine.

High school students get the table at night

Bishop Medardo Gómez, of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, recently sent out a letter to all of the international partners.  It the letter, he refers to hunger due to lack of work as a real problem for families in the church.  In addition, he writes:

We are concerned about the future, it is easy to interpret that our social problems will grow, the economic and political problems as well. In this moment the youth, and mostly those benefitted with scholarships, are worried and praying; we accompany them because there is fear that their scholarships can be affected, as well as their sponsors, the donors, to the point that they can’t support them any longer. We, the pastors and coordinators of the Youth Committee, give them hope, and assure them through God´s word, that God will not abandon us; he will protect our siblings that lovingly in God´s name accompany us with this valiant support, which is very significant for success, to strengthen the family, to have a better future, to eliminate the desire to migrate nor participate in violence groups.

The Salvadoran Lutheran Church has said that their system of managing funds and communications with international partners is functioning (a little bit more slowly since some team members cannot go into the office due to age restrictions - no one over age 60 is allowed to leave their home).  Each pastoral team is busy doing whatever online worship and WhatsApp chat group support possible, according to the team's resources and ministry style.  The Salvadoran Youth have put together at least one video to encourage one another.    Bishop Gómez has put out a few communication pieces within the synod and to the international solidarity community, and he does worship on Facebook Live from his home. 

For all who are connected in ministry with one church or another in El Salvador, I think it is good to check out what they are doing on social media.  Maybe you are already receiving audio messages, written prayers, little spiritually uplifting videos or short messages.  I think in many cases there is a whole new level of sharing going on!  If you haven't connected with your Salvadoran pastor teams, I encourage you to communicate by whatever means works for you and them so that you can support one another.

As for scholarship funds, each community setting is different, and each program's funds distribution system is different. Pastors or program coordinators may or may not have the capacity to leave their homes, depending on age or access to transportation.  The most important thing we can do from afar is communicate and support and work together as teams to figure out what is best for students, families, pastoral teams and sponsors. 

I have heard from several scholarship students in El Salvador that they are worried about their sister church friends and sponsors.  They hear about the large number of Covid-19 cases in the US, and they want to know that their friends and sponsors are doing OK.  One college student told me that he really needed his sponsor's email address because she is in the high risk category (a grandma) and he felt it was really important to send her messages of encouragement.  If you have social media or email connections with students, now is a good time to mutually support each other with prayer, little messages and emojis (because hearts and flowers and hug emojis transcend language barriers).  Also, you can help students with their English homework.

Finally, if you have children learning at your own kitchen table, or you are a teacher who is teaching remotely from your kitchen table, may you be blessed with patience and wisdom and creativity during this tricky learning and teaching time.  Across the globe, teachers and parents and students are trying to figure this out in the best ways possible.  With all of the technology available to us, there might be some creative ways to share learning experiences with kids in your sister church communities.  If you have questions or cool ideas, share them in the comments section.

*Future post:  Shopping and Finding Food during Quarantine


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