by Josh McKeown
Sunlight streams through the window of the Tilstra home on Orcas, illuminating the classroom desk that serves as 6-year-old Zoe’s new schoolhouse. When Orcas Island Elementary closed its doors in the spring of 2020, she was in kindergarten.
For many children like Zoe, now in first grade, education is being presented and received at dining room tables, in kitchens, basements, and bedrooms: the new “schoolhouse.”
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.
“It took a few days at least to get the distance learning going, it was kind of a rocky road,” said Delaney Tilstra, who attends a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eastsound along with her husband Jeff, their daughter Zoe and son Carter, 10. “We thought it would only be a week or two and it just kept continuing. Then we thought, ‘We’re going to need to get desks in the house and get a spot for them to be separate.’ It was just a whole different feeling.”
For many parents accustomed to sending their children off to 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.”
“I go to work every day and Delaney is home teaching our children and those are our greatest responsibilities,” said Jeff. “We had to establish some kind of pattern or routine, which is super helpful because they thrive on routines.”
Further south, the Malone family was suddenly faced with similar challenges. Cody and Melissa attend a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses with their two sons in Shelton, Washington. The oldest son Gabriel, 12, is in seventh grade and his younger brother Ian, 9, is in third.
“We have our schedule up on the refrigerator. We know what time we’re doing what,” said Melissa. “We don’t have a designated room that’s only for school, but we do have an area where they do their Zoom classes and all their school books are kept in that room.”
Despite the challenges, the new circumstances have encouraged the Tilstra and Malone families to include spiritual activities as a part of the children’s daily education.
“Spirituality is a part of our daily routine and that has continued during the pandemic,” said Melissa. “We like to consider a Bible verse together each day that gives us something positive to think about.”
The Tilstra family has been making use of educational tools available on the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses. These include printable family activities and animated videos, starring two children named Caleb and Sophia. Jeff explained that these tools are teaching their children valuable lessons.
“Because everything is technology-based these days,” Jeff said, “the kids can tune in really quickly to the Caleb and Sophia videos and they are interactive enough that they can view themselves in those situations.”
The 24/7 close proximity that many families are experiencing has them looking for creative ways to combat sibling fatigue.
As the pandemic surged into rural areas and their congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses moved to online meetings, like many families, the Tilstras and Malones looked for ways to ensure their children would remain mentally, emotionally, and spiritually balanced.
“We did a [virtual] tour of Bible lands in Israel,” said Melissa. “That was really great. We also toured a few museums that had free access that we never would have gone to otherwise.”