Savannah’s religious institutions offer virtual learning centers for students learning from home

THIS school year has been off to a bit of a rough start.

With SCCPSS schools online for the foreseeable future, students will trade the classroom for the living room.

Of course, this doesn’t come without challenges. Many parents and teachers reported Zoom outages and weak WiFi the first few days of school, likely due to overexerted servers.

As Kristy Edenfield wrote in last week’s issue, schooling from home is a major challenge for some parents, who have more kids than devices, or who might not be able to afford to miss work to school their children.

This is a stressful situation for parents and students alike. New group R.I.S.E. aims to help alleviate the stress by offering virtual learning centers hosted by religious institution and other groups in town.

The effort, which is short for Religious Institutions Supporting Education, is headed by John Ruehl, who was tapped in a Zoom meeting with Mayor Van Johnson and SCCPSS Superintendent Dr. Ann Levett to convene the conversation.

Ruehl had spoken with Dr. Eric Mason about the idea of virtual learning centers in churches across the city, and the idea resonated with Johnson and Levett.

“The practical side of it is that churches have been not meeting for worship in many cases, so there’s space available, and there’s anxiety about parents and students going back to school,” explains Ruehl. “Why not pull various resources together and try to alleviate some anxiety, and do it in the name of what we profess to believe in?”

R.I.S.E. will allow small groups of students to convene in churches and other community centers to complete their virtual learning there. Each space will follow CDC guidelines: students will be six feet apart with no more than 10 in a room, and sanitization procedures will be in place.

While R.I.S.E. is comprised of churches, students don’t have to belong to the congregation to utilize the learning space.

There will also be volunteers on hand to help the students with any issues they may have, which include logging on. Ruehl notes that the various learning platforms can cause a bit of a snag.

“It’s not going to go well. It’s just not,” says Ruehl. “We have to reconcile with that and try our best to improve as we go. This isn’t how things are supposed to be, but this is the reality. What we’re trying to do is adjust to overwhelming circumstances and make the best out of a difficult hand. It’s pushing churches, too—it’s pushing faith communities to step forward in ways that we’re provoked and called to. We’re not looking to replace education or teachers, but we will be there to support the learning that the school system is investing themselves in.”

The churches that are currently a part of R.I.S.E. represent a wide swath of denominations. Ruehl is ordained in the Christian tradition but would like to bring in any churches that are interested, mentioning the Islamic Center of Savannah and the Baha’i Unity Center as groups he’d like to work with.

By offering resources and a physical space to students in need, R.I.S.E. partners are fulfilling the mission they’re called to do in serving others.

So far, Ruehl estimates that 100 to 150 students are utilizing the virtual learning centers, but only some sites are currently operating. That number may go up as more sites open.

R.I.S.E. is also accepting more spaces and volunteers; any church leaders can contact Ruehl at john.ruehl@gmail.com for more information.

Volunteers are subject to background checks, so parents can feel safe when sending their kids to a virtual learning center.

It’s inspiring to see faith leaders come together to do good things for our community, and Ruehl is proud to see what’s happening.

“Savannah has a reason to be proud and encouraged by how many faith leaders have jumped in and really created a true coalition of religious institutions to help the community rise up to face a challenge that we share,” says Ruehl.

CS

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