A Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership class continues from a basement at Wheaton College due to severe weather, on Aug. 10, 2020. Photo courtesy of Humanitarian Disaster Institute

COVID tips for Christian colleges: Wear masks, social distance, pray — and watch out for tornadoes

(RNS) — This week we returned to the classroom to teach a weeklong intensive course together at Wheaton College, making it one of the first on-campus college classes to be taught in the U.S. during this new school year.

So of course, there was a tornado.

We started the morning in masks and ended the day sitting on the floor with our students in a half-lit basement.

Let the 2020-21 academic year begin!

Sitting in that basement, waiting out the storm, was a perfect time to think about the coming year. We realized that Christian colleges — whether they’re reopening in person or virtually — must trust God’s faithfulness and goodness while also being realistic about possible risks, threats and complications of COVID-19 — and whatever else comes our way.

During that first day, we also learned a few lessons that might help our school and others deal with what this academic year will bring. 

Prayer and Scripture helped overcome the strangeness of COVID-19.

We found starting off the class by reading and reflecting on our institute’s guiding Scripture (Micah 6:8) helped our team and students remember that we are not alone in challenging times.

Some of the usual first-day energy left quicker. We normally do our best to get to class and say hello to each student and connect with a handshake and brief one-on-one conversation before class to start building connections with students. But as teachers, we found it challenging to lose these moments—and the ability to read others’ facial expressions.

We found it helpful from the onset of class to call attention to and name the awkwardness, to review campus COVID-19 policies and to model the safety practices we expected. We also created space to invite the students into the process with us. Throughout the day we also found ourselves regularly coming back to this Scripture.

We embraced strategies churches are using to build community.

Over the course of COVID-19, we have learned that the church is not a building—community can continue to grow and flourish outside the ways we have previously experienced.

Rather than allowing COVID-19 to impede learning, we sought to regularly bring our conversations bac­­k to COVID-19 and use it to help drive home the message of what was being taught. It served as a reminder of how blessed we are to be able to meet at all, even in this adapted way.

A downed steeple at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, after severe weather. Photo courtesy of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute

We also had students on campus and online go through the class together. We made sure everyone had an opportunity to introduce themselves and tell their stories. We did our best to try to integrate both online and on-campus students throughout the day.

Hearing the stories of how God has directed the path of each student and made it possible for them to participate in this class even from halfway around the world in the middle of a pandemic was a reminder of how God is faithful even when our plans go awry. We were particularly encouraged when we broke for lunch and one of the online students asked others to stay online to do lunch over Zoom together. Like what our churches have learned, community happens in many forms.

Loving our neighbors means taking safety seriously.  

Safety is crucial. One of us is a cancer survivor. It could be deadly if the administration, our team and the students aren’t serious about safety. None of us should settle for any less. 

As educators, we must always put student and staff safety first. And as Christians, we must demonstrate our love for our neighbors by prioritizing the safety of each other and those in our community (Mark 12:31).

Our Wheaton College administration and colleagues worked incredibly hard to prepare guidelines (using federal, state and local guidance) and put into place rigorous safety standards, facilities, technology and communication, to name just a few.

If it weren’t for their hard work, we couldn’t — and wouldn’t — have been able to return to campus.

Expect the unexpected.

Our first day of class showed us that it’s important to recognize that what we need to do to stay safe may need to change.

We can’t just plan for school openings; we also need to anticipate and be vigilant and wise should these plans need to pivot (like postponing openings — or choosing to close) for the unexpected.

For us, this was not just a drill. As we sat socially distanced from one another in our masks, talking about how to lead through a crisis, cellphones began beeping with an emergency warning. A campus public alert message then took over our classroom PowerPoint screen, instructing us to take shelter in the basement of our building. Thankfully there were no injuries on campus from the unusual derecho storm, although estimated 90 mph winds swept through our community and downed power lines, trees, temporary structures and a steeple at a church just across the street from our classroom.

This was a bit dramatic for day one.

But we all need to be ready to improvise. Invite students to be part of co-creating this experience together.

On this past Sunday, in an outdoor worship service near campus, one of the readings was from Matthew 14:22-33, the story of Jesus walking on the water in the middle of the storm.

 In the story, Peter tries to join Jesus.  It works for a few steps, then the wind and wave threaten to pull him under and  Jesus has to reach out to save him.

“Faith leads us out of the boat,” the preacher said, “and grace brings us back in.”

This academic year is going to take faith that is informed by research and made possible by hard work.

We’re also going to need grace.

(Kent Annan is director of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College. Jamie Aten is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. Follow them on Twitter at @drjamieaten and @kentannan. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)