Small size makes Mennonite school adaptable in COVID-19 reality

'Grace should be our calling card'

June 30, 2021 | News | Volume 25 Issue 14D
Charleen Jongejan Harder | Special to Canadian Mennonite
Leamington, Ont.
A community highlight of the year came with a Taskmaster event. The students were told to dress in school colours, and they entered the festive auditorium to discover that classes had been cancelled and the whole day was filled with unique challenges. (Photo courtesy of UMEI)

Last year was supposed to be full of celebrations for the 75th anniversary of UMEI Christian High School (formerly United Mennonite Educational Institute). Instead, the pandemic shut things down right after the first big event, a coffee house of music and drama by staff and alumni of the small Mennonite school. The 2020-2021 student body is smaller than usual this year, with enrolment around 40 students total, and yet the small size may have been a hidden advantage during COVID-19 restrictions, allowing for a more stable school year than the public schools in the area.

“It feels like God is with us, working through the pandemic,” says Chani Wiens, a math teacher. “Our small size made us adaptable in ways that other schools couldn’t be.”

“It’s impressed me, our size allowed us to very nimbly move online without a lot of difficulty,” says Joel Warkentin, a religious studies teacher. While local high schools shifted to a hybrid virtual/in-person quadmester format last fall, he says, “Because our numbers are low, we could keep desks two metres apart, keep cohorts small, and maintain the semester structure, and mostly in person.”

Classes went virtual during province-mandated stay-at-home orders from Dec. 14, 2020, to Feb. 9, and then from April 19 to the end of the school year in June.

“We are learning that there are things we used to put a lot of importance on in a ‘normal’ situation,” says Warkentin, “but when that’s not possible, we can be more grace-filled. As I tell my Grade 10 New Testament students, grace should be our calling card.”

Maintaining community spirit during the pandemic has been challenging, however, according to principal Sonya Bedal, who observes that the year has been a bit flat: “Without community, we’re four walls and a bunch of desks.”

Warkentin laments, “How do you build community virtually, with an age group that is highly social, wants desperately to be together, and you’re telling them they can’t?”

Student Abby Krueger says, “For me, it was difficult to adjust to such an abrupt change, although UMEI definitely helped to make that change as easy as it can be.” She is glad that classes were in person as much as possible, saying that, while “online school is never great, the teachers still made sure to keep the environment positive and to have conversations with us before class, which I appreciated.”

Board chair Steve Enns recalls that when classes first went virtual, he appreciated how Bedal would visit each class regularly, just to check in on how the students were doing.

To facilitate some community in the building, lunchtime was arranged so the whole school could eat and have chapel together in a safe way. Cohorts were also encouraged to connect outside as much as possible. When classes were virtual, chapel, which is the thread that kept the spirit of the school strong, moved online.

A COVID-19 memory that will stick with Warkentin is the simple act of passing a computer that hosted a virtual learning student from teacher to teacher. “We now recognize that technology is not just a tool, it’s a means of connection,” he says. “We’ve all been the person behind the screen now. Some classes go quite well virtually. Writer’s craft, for example, has shown the benefits of revising a document together; and other classes benefit from using a breakout room to talk one-on-one with a student.”

A community highlight of the year came with a Taskmaster event in March of this year. The students were told to dress in school colours and they entered the festive auditorium to discover that classes had been cancelled and the whole day was filled with unique challenges. Each cohort was videotaped completing the challenges so they could see how other cohorts solved each station. A generous donor provided a meal.

“This is UMEI,” says Wiens. “This is how it’s supposed to be. The flexibility of a small school, attentiveness to kids’ mental health, and community support. Even the mayor was involved.”

Enns is proud of how the whole community has rallied around the school. Last year’s traditional fish-fry meal transitioned to a curbside pickup model in collaboration with the Leamington Mennonite Home, and it brought in $35,000 to the school. The take-out fish-fry was recently repeated in 2021.

Looking ahead to the upcoming school year, folks at UMEI feel there is a lot to get excited about:

  • After a vacancy, the music position has been filled by local musician and alumna Erin Armstrong, the founder and director of Music Moves Kids and Abridged Opera, conductor of the Windsor Community Choir, music director of Leamington United Church, and a regular performer/collaborator with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra. “It’s great to work right down the street from where I live, and to reconnect with the Mennonite community,” she says. “I’ve always felt welcomed.”
  • John Fitler is continuing to expand the school’s enriched robotics program.
  • Wiens is spending the summer collaborating with Rockway Mennonite Collegiate’s math teacher, Robyn Farlowe, to redesign the Grade 9 math curriculum according to new standards, working through the Thinking Classroom model. “I’m always trying to improve my craft,” she says. “The goal is to always bring new energy and take the kids with you.”

A community highlight of the year came with a Taskmaster event. The students were told to dress in school colours, and they entered the festive auditorium to discover that classes had been cancelled and the whole day was filled with unique challenges. (Photo courtesy of UMEI)

UMEI's future music teacher, Erin Armstrong is the founder and director of Music Moves Kids and Abridged Opera, conductor of the Windsor Community Choir, music director of Leamington United Church, and a regular performer/collaborator with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of Erin Armstrong)

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