As Burke County students navigate the world of online learning this school year, one local church is implementing a new program to help them face the new challenges.
First United Methodist Church of Morganton has transformed several of its unused rooms into The Wesley Virtual Learning Center, a clean, supervised space for students enrolled in Burke County Public Schools’ Virtual Academy. The center opened its doors Aug. 17 to about 30 middle and high school students who would otherwise be home alone throughout the school week.
“We really don’t want the kids to have to sit at home,” said the Rev. Dana McKim, senior pastor of First United Methodist. “We’d like for them to have some socialization and supervision.”
He pointed out that many of Burke County’s households are dual-income families, meaning that many children are on their own for the entire school week.
“It can be a challenge to expect students to stay focused,” McKim said. “This environment can help them do that.”
The students are separated into pods by grade level and sex, according to McKim. Each pod has about six students, and each room is monitored by a parent from one of the families.
“The parents manage everything that goes on in the program,” McKim said. “Our commitment to them is to provide a clean, sanitized, safe, secure space.”
The idea for the center came about when the church’s leadership was approached by a group of parents who needed help navigating the litany of new challenges brought on by virtual education. He explained that the United Methodist Church has historically been an aggressive supporter of public education. As a result, he believes the church's call is to do everything it can to address the challenges families are facing during these difficult times.
“As we talked about it, we recognized that the needs our families have are the same needs families all over our community are having right now,” McKim said. “This is an unprecedented time, and parents are struggling on so many levels. We saw an opportunity to take some of our massive unused space and make good with it for the community.”
He also sees this program as a way to address educational and social disparities that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed.
“Right now, we are in a time of great disparity,” McKim said. “But as this goes on, the potential for the educational gaps to widen is really pretty significant.”
First United Methodist is working hard to ensure the environment is safe and healthy for the students. According to McKim, students arrive every morning in separate 10-minute windows. Before entering the building, they receive a quick health assessment, including a temperature check and a few screening questions. Masks and social distancing are required throughout the day, except for 15-minute breaks when students are allowed to go outside and remove them.
In addition to these precautions, the church has hired VitalGuard, a cleaning company from Mooresville, to do a once-a-week deep cleaning of the center.
“The product they use kills viruses on contact and then continues to work during the course of the week,” McKim said. “We’re also supplementing that with our own janitorial services.”
Cheryl Shuffler, public relations officer for BCPS, said the school system was not aware of the program, but it is grateful for the support students are receiving from faith communities.
“We know it is a difficult time for families navigating work, schools being closed for in-person instruction and a pandemic,” Shuffler said. “I applaud others in the community who are reaching out … to keep kids engaged … and check in on kids’ social and emotional well-being.”
McKim hopes to see more churches join First United Methodist in supporting students and families during this unprecedented time.
“There are still quite a number of kids in Burke County who are struggling,” he said. “We want to develop a formula that can be replicated at other churches.
McKim said New Day Christian Church is working with his congregation to develop a learning center of its own. Zion Baptist Church in Morganton and Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Valdese also have opened their doors to Burke County students in need.