A culture of care

How a Sandpoint school survives and thrives in a pandemic

By Ammi Midstokke
Reader Contributor

At a Sandpoint Waldorf School board meeting in mid-August, a group of faculty, parents and board members tried to have a civil discussion about the future of their children. They also tried to talk about the livelihood of the children’s parents. And the health risks posed to elderly members of their family or the community. And masks. And the financial viability of a private school during a pandemic. 

For so many tender subjects to be placed on the same table in the same moment seemed to pose perhaps the greatest health risk. No punches were thrown, no names called, no arguments had. Perhaps it was because everyone was there for the same reason: To do their best to ensure a safe learning environment in which the students, staff and families could thrive. 

Waldorf teacher Christopher Lunde instructs eighth-grade student, Isadora Gilchrist, on observing the physical properties of water. Photo by Ammi Midstokke.

To this end, the school created a COVID Task Force in the spring. The task force spent the summer months researching, problem solving and calling every single family in the school to ask for their personal input, concerns and needs when it came time to return to school. 

The responses from families were everywhere on the spectrum from demanding a more sterile environment to refusal to wear masks. While the task force knew it would not be possible to meet all needs, the common thread of keeping the children in school would become their priority. They took the information they had carefully collected and created a plan.

As it is with COVID-19 policies, they generally mandate Plans A, B and C because the scenarios are complex, often require urgent response, and must consider diverse and changing needs of a community. Their plan was created with the shared intention of keeping students in a classroom and group learning environment as much as possible, while also preventing the spread of the virus through the school and larger community. This meant determining ways in which to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Panhandle Health District guidelines on social distancing while simultaneously educating an entire school of pre-K through eighth-grade students.

It is fair to say that this community has a unique demographic spread in which its members’ values are widely different, if not sometimes in opposition. As the plan developed, the conversations about implementing the plan were interwoven with a delicate sharing of opinions. Delicate, because opinion-stating can seem rather a dangerous act these days. 

Something different happened in that meeting, though. Parents lamented raising children in fear. Administrators worried about the social and emotional development of children associating mask wearing with shame. The task force responded with the theme of creating a “Culture of Care.”

A Culture of Care is an idea that has been used in the corporate world to improve employee relations throughout a hierarchical organization. It was arguably a shift in consciousness when statistics and research pointed out what we inherently know as humans: If you take care of people they are happier, have improved work performance and ultimately they care about the organization thus making the business more successful.

This isn’t new to Waldorf education. In fact, much of Waldorf education theory is based on the importance of the individual within the community, where a Culture of Care is not second nature, but fundamental. A verse read at assemblies states it with gentle lines:

The healthy social life is found, when,

In the mirror of each human soul,

The community finds its reflection,

Care is, or should be, all-encompassing and one must not meet particular criteria, political sway, age or ideology in order to be deserving or worthy of care. The extreme division that we see in our current socio-political and economic climate requires more care. This is expressed when consideration and interest in those humans, value systems and needs takes place, and then manifests into a culture of inclusion. 

Thus the Sandpoint Waldorf School applied its mission to its foundational Culture of Care and came up with a plan that considers the emotional well-being of students; their educational development; the health risks of teachers, parents and the Sandpoint community; the financial implications for families staying home to educate; and more. 

We can see the result of this in the back field of the Litehouse YMCA, where the organization has allowed the school to install an outdoor learning lab for students. The classes, small in number, are spending their days in rather romantic white structures where colorful silk scarves blow in the late summer breeze. The odd potted palm tree rustles. Wooden benches with bright pillows spaced widely apart remind one more of a decadent tea party than a classroom. Were it not for the clean chalkboard, teacher’s desk and occasional row of beakers, one might mistake the classroom for a humbly decorated wedding venue. 

The children sit happily in their pods, remaining with their classroom throughout the day, and free from the burden of wearing a mask — unless they are required to be in the school building, where all staff, students and visitors are required to wear them. (Indoor schooling, for example, was necessary this week due to the pall of wildfire smoke blanketing the region.) The students laugh and play, sing and learn together as they always have, only the setting is far more picturesque — perhaps even fairytale-esque. 

The curriculum has been carefully adapted to allow for distance learning should students, classes or teachers have a need for quarantine. The first weeks of class in the upper grades have included additional typing and technology lessons to enable students to easily transition from a classroom to a home environment. Additional teacher assistants have been acquired to help students who are educating from home to ensure a successful learning experience for all. 

The creativity, effort and collaboration that has gone into keeping the school a viable option for the community is a testament to a Culture of Care. It demonstrates both the flexibility and adaptability needed as a nation struggles to respond to a pandemic. Most of all, it is a refreshing reminder of how caring about each other can be the foundation of a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem. 

Ammi Midstokke is an author and columnist for the Sandpoint Reader, The Spokesman Review and other publications. Her daughter attends eighth grade at the Sandpoint Waldorf School.

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