Andrea Dugan, the superintendent of Mountainview Christian School in Indonesia, was on vacation last year when she found out from a local newspaper that one of her students was hospitalized with a suspected case of COVID-19, among the first in the area.
She returned home to Indonesia to extend the school’s quarter break before eventually making the call for her 210 students to go virtual for the remainder of the semester, just days before the Indonesian government closed all schools. Virtual learning continued through the 2020–2021 school year, with just four in-person weeks in the spring before rising cases sent them back to the screens.
From March to May, she remembers feeling “flooded with adrenaline” as she kept up with local government orders and ran the school while also ensuring her own children learned online.
“We’re the international school,” she said. “We’re going to be seen. Whatever we do, people are going to know.” For Dugan, leading a Christian international school meant that following government orders and strict COVID-19 protocols with integrity mattered not just for safety but as a witness to the local community.
Multiple school families returned to the United States in March after the local US embassy strongly encouraged all citizens to leave the country. They’re still unable to return to Indonesia. Limited visas are also blocking new staff from coming for the next school year.
“Even though I have teachers intending to join my staff come August, I’m holding my breath to know whether or not I can actually legally get them in the country because [of] the visa process,” Dugan said. “How do I staff my school next year if I can’t physically get people in the country?”
At the conclusion of the first full school year since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, many teachers are planning to return to some semblance of normal after the summer. But at international Christian schools like Dugan’s, the disruptions to staffing, enrollment, and financial resources—not to mention the continued spread of the virus in some places—linger.
International Christian schools typically cater to a mix of missionaries, diplomats, large corporations, and locals who want a Christian—and typically Western—education.
Since COVID-19, schools dependent on tuition have struggled financially as families have moved back to their home countries or are no longer able to pay the full cost. According to a report published by the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), 63 percent of the 73 schools surveyed reported a decreased enrollment for fall of 2020 and 49 percent said their budgets decreased.
Joe Neff, the coordinating director of global educational services for Teach Beyond, works with schools in 60-plus countries. Many Christian schools abroad have shifted away from a sole missionary focus to more inclusive models as globalized business makes expatriate life more common, he said.
Schools with wider diversity are typically better funded and enjoy more financial security, but those same families able to pay higher fees were more likely to be evacuated by large companies and governments when the pandemic hit than their missionary counterparts.
COVID-19 safety as Christian witness
Dugan and her family have been planning a trip back to the United States, a six-month furlough to their home state of Minnesota, but now she’s worried the limited visas could affect their reentry and is anxious to step away from the school during such an uncertain season.
She’s been in Indonesia for the past nine years and knows that if she wants to continue to serve long-term, a break is necessary after a year when leadership has felt like “walking through mud.”
As a regional director for ACSI, Tim Shuman is in constant communication with schools around the world and provides support for leaders like Dugan. “If you’re the chief motivator and you don’t feel like doing your job, how do you deal with that?” he asked. “The pressure on leaders in these schools right now is tremendous and it’s very tiring and they have to lead somehow.”
At international Christian schools, staff feel a particular obligation to meet the pivots and pressures of the pandemic and care well for their communities. They see their work in Christian education as part of their testimony, particularly in places where the church is in the minority or underground.
“It’s so hard to ask more from your people than you would ever want to have to ask. … But I think as believers, we want to be promise keepers,” said the head of an international school in Russia that works with families from several large corporations. “As a Christian school, if you’ve contracted services, we’re going to provide them.”
At her school, online learning has presented a unique opportunity for parents who might not be Christians to watch chapel services and hear Bible classes taught in their native language with their children. An American living in Russia since January 2020, she asked not to be named because of the country’s regulations around missionary activity by foreigners.
Neff said that teachers across the globe have similarly reported how virtual school allowed parents in non-Christian homes to hear the Christian content their children are taught. Still, it’s been a challenge to keep teachers in virtual classrooms amid moves and changes to immigration policies.
Certain places are more in demand than others. Schools in countries like Egypt and Russia struggle to attract potential teachers as Americans have preconceived political notions of the risks associated with living there, according to Shuman at ACSI. “Those schools are always looking for that unique person called by God who is brave,” he said.
Schools in Western Europe get more applications since they have high tourism appeal and low security risk. But after the pandemic sent so many people home, schools everywhere are trying to convince potential staff it’s worth moving overseas during a tumultuous season and hoping borders will stay open long enough for them to get in.
“It’s always a challenge in the best of times,” Shuman said. “With COVID, it just ramps up.”
God’s creative inspiration
At El Camino Academy in Bogotá, Colombia, director Beth Afanador has filled several gaps but is still looking for teachers for kindergarten through fifth grade; middle school; and high school math, science, and Bible, plus a middle school principal and extracurricular teachers.
Every year, recruiting enough staff is “a miracle,” she said. Currently, the school’s staff is 63 percent American and 37 percent Colombian serving a student population of about 80 percent locals. After a strict lockdown and a virtual spring last year, the school had to pause in-person learning this spring at times due to the protests sweeping the city.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve said, ‘God, thank heavens you’re a creative God, because we need creativity and we’re made in your image,’” Afanador said. “This has been a year that you can’t just do things the way you’ve done them, so it’s taken a lot more mental energy because you’re inventing all the time and it’s changing all the time. When you think you’re set, two weeks later there’s a new decree, a new law, a new outbreak, a new something. So it’s constant, constant change.”
Looking forward to the next year, she said the local government is pushing hard for schools to be open in person with safety protocols in the fall, fearing the “irreparable” social and emotional damage to students if they remain online another year. At her own school, Afanador said she’s never seen more students meeting with psychologists and psychiatrists to cope with the stress of virtual school this past year.
In some countries, local governments are requiring teachers and staff to be fully vaccinated to return in person for the fall, sparking hesitation for both locals and expats. In Indonesia, Dugan said some expats are wary of taking the China-produced vaccine and hopes teachers who are hesitant will get vaccinated in the US over the summer. In Central Asia, locals are similarly nervous about the Russian-produced vaccine.
In Hungary, the International Christian School of Budapest (ICSB) transitioned to online learning early in March 2020. Kristi Hiltibran, the director of the school, said her crisis management team quickly formulated a plan for virtual learning and prepared contingency budgets in case any of the school’s 230 students left.
But enrollment numbers remained steady and the school reopened with safety precautions in the fall. In November, the country’s COVID-19 cases steadily ticked upward, closing the school again. Students were able to slowly return in January and February. Hiltibran said she felt like she “became a lawyer trying to decipher” the changing protocols and safety measures recommended by the local government.
ISCB focused on six main strategies: masking, distancing, limited entry access, disinfecting surfaces, ventilation, and personal hygiene. “They worked very well,” Hiltibran said. “We had very few cases for most of the year, until they didn’t work.”
In March of this year, cases and deaths suddenly spiked in Hungary as aggressive variants from the UK traveled across the continent. A week after a mandated government school shutdown, cases exploded within ICSB’s community.
Thirty-three adults—about one third of the school’s staff—and 13 students tested positive, with four staff members hospitalized. The school’s lower school principal, Stephanie Bishop, experienced the most severe case and, after several weeks in the hospital, died on Good Friday at the age of 50. Her husband is the school’s chaplain, and one of their two children is still a student at ICSB.
“It’s hard to believe,” Hiltibran said. “On the other hand, hundreds of people are dying here, so you can believe it. In a way you’re not surprised that someone you know has died of COVID because so many people have died.”
A virtual memorial with notes to her family underscores the gaping hole left by Bishop’s death. Hiltibran described her as a “key leader in the school” who brought steady wisdom and an unflappable personality, traits the school leaned upon throughout the past year as they navigated the pandemic.
“I feel like God’s really carried me through the whole thing,” she said, crediting the resilience and hope of her fellow coworkers to their faith. Despite his own pain, Bishop’s husband was concerned about shepherding the school community’s emotions in his role as chaplain, Hiltibran said.
But “as a leader,” Hiltibran said, “you can’t crumple up into a ball in your grief.” She still had to lead the school through the rest of the year, helping teachers and staff process the loss with students, while facing their own grief. Over the summer, she’ll prepare for hopefully a return to in-person school and the difficult task of finding Bishop’s replacement.
Leaving home and friends
The situation can seem even more dire in places where Christian educators’ status was precarious to begin with.
One international teacher who spent 14 years in South Korea and then 7 in China evacuated to the US at the start of the pandemic and ended up teaching virtually—her students scattered across the globe and her materials back at her home in China.
Last year she and her husband, who also taught at an international school, ended their lease and gave away most of their items to local friends when border closures prevented them from returning to China. The couple asked not to be named because of government restrictions on Christianity where they work. They ended up moving to an international Christian school in Central Asia in November.
That school experienced a similar exodus during the pandemic, with some families getting trapped in the United States early in the pandemic. In one case at another international school in the city, parents’ employers gave families just five hours to pack up and fly home. They never came back.
“There’s the potential [my kids are] not going to see these friends again—ever,” said another teacher there. “That was really, really hard just not having that closure with friends.” She expects only in the coming year will many students realize the full loss of this past year, especially students who missed the emotional and relational growth that comes with transitioning to middle school and high school.
The former teacher in China is also trying to find a sense of closure, having finally received a shipment of items left behind but not knowing when she’ll be able to go back and visit. She finished the semester teaching history, writing, and orchestra both online and in person at their new school. It’s better than teaching across multiple time zones, but the limitations of education in a pandemic still weigh on her.
“I cried because I was so frustrated about not being able to tell how the relationships are going because of all the masks,” she said.
Despite spending the past two decades overseas, she said she is not a global nomad at heart, preferring to stay in one location rather than country hop every few years. Barring another sudden departure, she hopes this will be home.
Courtney Runn is a writer based in Austin, Texas.