ROCHELLE — Unlike many in the state, St. Paul Lutheran School in Rochelle had students in its building all day every day during the 2020-2021 school year with the exception of some remote learners and short time off during the holidays to prevent spread.
That, among other things, is something St. Paul Principal Steve Hall is proud of during the last 17 months.
"We've been successful throughout this pandemic,” Hall said. “Our teachers have gone above and beyond and made it their business to be the best they can be for the children. Our second strength would be the families that attend St. Paul. Their willingness to be flexible and work within what we're doing and do the best they can. By nature of our size, communication is really strong.”
Before March 13, 2020 when schools closed, Hall told teachers to prepare for kids not to be in the building. Kids were sent home with learning materials and the school closed in-person for the remainder of that school year.
Going into the 2020-2021 school year, Hall knew more learning needed to be done electronically and teachers took extra training on their own time to be prepared.
"Going into the 2020-2021 school year, the preparations we had to make to accommodate being here all day, we had to do a lot to be ready to meet the challenge and all the mandates,” Hall said. “The costs were high. The reason we were able to do that was the generosity of not only the families but people who support St. Paul from afar. People that saw we needed help and helped out.”
Due to being a private school, St. Paul doesn’t get much money from the state, Hall said. Last year it got around $1,000 total. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to follow state rules related and unrelated to the pandemic.
From the beginning of the COVID-19, whenever the state would make a mandate, St. Paul followed it. The school is currently adhering to Gov. JB Pritzker’s mask mandate after originally deciding on a mask optional approach.
“It's misunderstood by some people that we're a private school and they think we can do whatever we want,” Hall said. “That's not true. Regardless of if we have any state support, we also have other people like insurance carriers that expect us to follow the rules. We put ourselves out on a limb if we don't. Our bottom line here is to keep our kids safe.”
Hall said that even when the school announces controversial decisions like following the mask mandate, he still receives emails and communications of support from families. He knows there are a lot of parents that don’t want their children wearing masks in school, and he’s grateful for their understanding.
"And our kids cooperate,” Hall said. “We have such good kids here. Because they come from good families. We have the support of the people that come here and their willingness to work within what we're doing in a supportive and non-combative way."
St. Paul has about 140 students right now, preschool through eighth grade. Hall said “just a couple” families moved their children into St. Paul from Rochelle’s elementary district after seeing the differences in what it was doing last year such as being in school all day in-person.
Hall said “a lot” of families inquired, but generally the number enrolled was the same as any other year. He did get a lot of phone calls later in the year, but at that point it was too late for enrollment.
“I do believe the fact that we were in school all day has given our kids an advantage, that's common sense,” Hall said. “But we did have a ton of remote students who were in our classes with us via Google Classroom. We didn't just give them assignments. We're proud of how involved they were."
Hall praised the support that’s been given to him by administrators in Rochelle’s school districts such as District 231 and 212 Superintendent Jason Harper, District 231 Assistant Superintendent Tony Doyle and Rochelle Township High School Principal Chris Lewis.
“I like to stay in line with what they're doing,” Hall said. "I'm extremely happy and proud and impressed by the support we get. They embrace us as part of the community.”
Hall believes the pandemic has taught his students lessons in life of being resourceful, creative and patient. He believes living through COVID-19 will make them stronger in the long run.
But, he’s also noticed how students have missed out. They didn’t get to participate in things like athletics, field trips and a Christmas program.
“It breaks my heart that those kids had to miss out on those things,” Hall said. “It changed the climate of the school because during basketball season there's an energy in the building. Same with the Christmas program. That energy you can't manufacture. But I'm so proud of our kids for being resilient. Our hope is that our group can experience those things this year."
St. Paul’s faith-based education has helped it through the pandemic.
"We're a Christian school,” Hall said. “We walk by faith here. That doesn't mean we're not responsible. We have a lot of faith in the lord to put us in a position to succeed. When we come up against these kinds of things, that's an important part of what we do and believe here. God is part of the whole process.”
Hall can’t say that there haven’t been challenges in the past 17 months.
“It's been the biggest challenge in my 36 years of being a Lutheran educator,” Hall said. “It's been the hardest time. But looking ahead from March 2020 to now, it's been much easier than I thought it would be because of the cooperation of staff and families."