COVID-19 has completely disrupted our school year. What seemed worlds away only a few months ago has now landed in our laps and affected our lives tremendously. Little did we know back in September 2019 that we would be talking to our families about maintaining tuition payments, or even considering refunds or credits.
How should we respond to a parent statement like, “I want some tuition money back because this is not the type of education I signed up for!” or “I am not getting my money’s worth!” Most of us as school leaders have heard these statements, and they’ve made our hearts sink. If you’ve struggled with how to reply, let me share with you how we’re addressing this at John Knox Christian School in Oakville.
To guide our decision making, our leadership team has looked to the greatest commandment as declared by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-39: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’"
Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian, places our Heavenly Father’s love and our love for our Heavenly Father in its proper perspective in this way:
“When I trust deeply that today God is truly with me and holds me safe in a divine embrace, guiding every one of my steps, I can let go of my anxious need to know how tomorrow will look, or what will happen next month or next year. I can be fully where I am and pay attention to the many signs of God's love within me and around me.” Here and Now (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 33.
Nouwen also profoundly steers us to the definition and essence of what community (or love of neighbour) looks like:
“Community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive, not for ourselves but for one another. Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own. The question, therefore, is not 'How can we make community?' but, 'How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?'” Bread for the Journey (New York: Harper One, 2006), 30.
As a result of loving and trusting our God and loving our neighbour, the leadership of John Knox has communicated the following decisions to our school families:
- We have chosen to navigate our way through this COVID-19 environment with the "community mindset" as opposed to a "consumer mindset."
- Our building is closed, but our education is not.
- We will work with families and take into account "family capacity" to ensure that we thrive together rather than just survive.
- We have placed ourselves in "phase 2" (adapting and stabilizing) of our online plan.
- We continue to get better each passing week and will be arriving shortly at "phase 3" (flourishing or thriving) in the online plan.
- Our staff is working very hard and, at times, working harder and longer to plan a great online program for the students and care for our community via our Family Care Team.
- As a result of these realities, we have made the decision that we will not offer tuition rebates or discounts. It is important for us to assume responsibility for the students’ educational program and our Family Care program both now and in the future when we are back in the building.
How does our school love and support our families in the middle of these decisions?
- We will come alongside families who have contacted us to say that their income level has changed significantly, and they need help financially.
- We have deferred the April payment for those families who have asked.
- We also encourage those families to access our bursary program which will be expanded to take into account the new realities of families' financial situations.
- Our school will help those who need financial help, and those who are able will come alongside to support them via donations to our bursary fund.
- Recently I was approached by a member of our community to coordinate the acquisition of a sum of money for the purposes of offering a matching campaign devoted to helping our families financially. We agreed to enter into a season of prayer and allow the Lord to direct our paths through that prompting.
- Our approach has been to listen to our families, give them hope and support, and proceed thoughtfully and deliberately through this financial landscape.
During this COVID-19 pandemic, we have found it helpful to remind ourselves of filter questions, as suggested by Andy Crouch, the former editor of Christianity Today. Questions such as “What stories will be told about how the Lord used our John Knox Christian School community to support our school families?" and "What will people say about John Knox Christian School and the way the leadership handled this COVID-19 moment in history?" help us clarify our thinking.
Our hope and prayer is that the answers to those questions include stories of families' thankfulness for the support, and the sense that the Lord was leading the John Knox Christian School community to be the hands and feet of Jesus to one another.
That’s our story. Is your story similar? Is your story guided by the greatest two commandments—loving God above all and your neighbour as yourself? Does your story have consistent speaking points that all your school leaders own and promote? Does your plan protect the long-term sustainability of your school? And finally, are you loving and supporting your families in the middle of messaging your tuition continuity plan?
Joanthan Swift, the author of Gulliver's Travels, who loved critiquing humans and culture through satire, once said that, “A wise man should have money in his head, and not in his heart.” My encouragement to you is to expand that thinking and place money in your head, allowing it to be informed by your heart. May you run the business side of your school well in your head, and may you run the “love God and neighbour” side of your school well in your heart.
The Lord be with you and bless you as you give leadership in this important area.
George Petrusma is the Toronto Region Cohort Leader and Principal at John Knox Christian School in Oakville.