Feb. 20—Sunlight streams through the kitchen window of the Serwatka home, illuminating the countertop that serves as 8-year-old Dominic's classroom desk. His feet barely touch the crossbar of the stool as he watches his teacher on his iPad.
For many children like Dominic, education is now presented and received at dining room tables, in kitchens, basements and bedrooms: the new "school house."
But when school buildings shuttered their doors in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Jehovah's Witness families turned the challenges of remote learning into an opportunity to expand their children's education through spiritual activities.
"The pandemic upended our entire educational system," said Greta Hawkins, principal of P.S. 90 The Magnet School for Environmental Studies and Community Wellness in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Parents must realize that now more than ever they need to take a proactive interest in their child's education."
For many parents accustomed to sending their children off to a school each morning, taking a more active role in their child's education has been one of the most difficult challenges of this "new normal."
"When the pandemic hit, I was panicking because I didn't know how I was going to deal with this, since my husband and I both work," said Jodi Serwatka, who attends a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Warren, Mich. "Dominic was wondering why he couldn't go to school."
Michael and Tricia Shanahan know a little something about that challenge, multiplied by six — five girls and a boy ages 2 to 15. Prior to the stay-at-home order, the children were spread across four different schools in Grand Rapids, Mich. Now they all go to one — home.
"We don't have an unlimited number of rooms," said Michael, "so we had to try and find a dedicated workspace for everyone to do their schoolwork." Despite the challenges, the new circumstances have allowed the Witness family to include spiritual activities as a part of the children's daily education.
Though the family has always enjoyed spending time together, the 24/7 close proximity has brought on a touch of sibling fatigue. "We're trying to teach the kids to be content with the present circumstances and to focus on the positive," said Tricia. "Acknowledge the negative, but don't dwell on it."
Some families have found that the best education happens beyond the walls of their "school house"—with what educators call authentic or project-based learning. This learn-by-doing approach "requires developing skills in critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication," according to PBLWorks, a nonprofit organization focused on project-based learning.
Although limited time and training constrain its use in many classrooms, Keith and Ann Keller have made project-based learning one of the primary tools for teaching their daughters.
The wooded acres around their home in Fremont, Indiana, are where education comes to life for Izzy, 9, Genna, 7, and Naomi, 5. "We're very adventurous," said Ann. "Sometimes we'll drop everything and go for a hike."
As the pandemic surged into rural areas and their congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses moved to online meetings, the Kellers looked for ways to ensure their daughters would remain mentally, emotionally, and spiritually balanced.
The Kellers decided to tackle a project inspired by the children's video series Become Jehovah's Friend, found on the official website of Jehovah's Witnesses, jw.org. Genna and Naomi took an internet course on stop motion animation, the girls designed backyard sets and sewed costumes, and the family produced two movies featuring stories from the Bible.
"Witness parents are handling their children's education in a way that is worthy of imitation, perhaps because they have always had a structured educational program for their congregation meetings," said Principal Hawkins, who attends a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Brooklyn.
Providing a structured education—spiritually and academically—is a way of life for Kevin and Jodi Dean, parents of Jonah, 10, and Zoe, 7. They have made it a practice to include spiritual activities as a regular feature of their children's education along with visits to libraries, zoos, and museums.
"I think education can enhance our lives, but we never wanted it to be our lives," said Jodi, citing the balance she and her husband have tried to strike in teaching their children.
"We love learning, and I think that rubs off on the children," she said. "Every day, whether it's a school day or not is an opportunity to enjoy a learning experience."
The Deans, who attend a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have taken advantage of virtual travel opportunities—visiting the Louvre and the British Museums together as well as taking a number of online tours of Bible lands.
"We wanted our kids to get a good quality education," said Kevin, "but we also wanted to be a part of the learning experience."
More information on how families can succeed at distance learning and on the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses is available at jw.org, with content in over 1,000 languages.