SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Across the country, churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are closed to regular services to help stop the spread of coronavirus. But as Deena Prichep reports, some are opening to host remote learning pods, providing a space for students whose schools are closed to in-person instruction.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: The fellowship hall at Georgia's Smoke Rise Baptist Church can seat 400 people easily. But now...
BECKY CASWELL-SPEIGHT: So this is one of our teachers' desks. And she's really, really far from these desks.
PRICHEP: Becky Caswell-Speight is the family minister and helped set up the digital learning center, which has just 16 kids.
CASWELL-SPEIGHT: But there's your plexiglass, one disinfecting station over here, and an air filter.
PRICHEP: Caswell-Speight knows that even with the precautions, it's not as safe as staying home with a parent. There are reasons local schools are closed. But not all parents can stay home or support their kids in online school.
CASWELL-SPEIGHT: When all of this first started, one of the things that I quickly noticed popping up were really expensive child care, which is great and fills a need, but most families don't have an extra $600 to $800 a month sitting around.
PRICHEP: Smoke Rise's program is not a Christian program, but Caswell-Speight says it is a mission. And it's a mission many houses of worship are taking on. Some are running faith-based programs, some working with schools, some just renting out space to other groups. But they're all responding to a call.
DAVID PASKIN: This was about, is there a need in our community? Can we fill it, and can we do it well? And if that isn't one of the driving principles of any religious institution, then I'm not sure why they're around.
PRICHEP: David Paskin is the family rabbi at Miami's Temple Sinai. Like Smoke Rise, they've got kids in masks. They're taking temperatures. But there are no guarantees, and Paskin knows the dangers. He tested positive this summer, and it was pretty bad.
PASKIN: I can't begin to tell you how many funerals we've done in this community from COVID. Members of all of our families have died.
PRICHEP: Houses of worship do have some things going for them, namely empty buildings with huge rooms. And most are hosting just a few dozen kids, not hallways full of hundreds, like at a typical public school.
But parents wrestle with the choice. Betsy Walker in Columbus, Ohio, has been cautious.
BETSY WALKER: We're not working out in a gym. We have not, you know, sat down at a restaurant. We are trying to limit the number of places that we go to to do our shopping.
PRICHEP: But with two parents working full-time jobs, she felt her kids needed more. And that was before her 6-year-old figured out how to use a Lego piece to pick the lock of their home office. So now a few days a week, the kids spend their virtual school day at Linwood (ph) United Methodist Church.
WALKER: It's been a balance of physical and mental health and social-emotional health. So for our family, this scenario seemed to be the best option. Things might change in a month (laughter), might change next week.
PRICHEP: For now, Walker says she's grateful to have the church program for her kids and for her.
WALKER: Any time that somebody is going through something difficult, they look to their village of support, the church, you know, whether that be other families in the church, the pastors, of course. All of them are a part of our village.
PRICHEP: Even when the village suddenly involves a Zoom link, there is an underlying changelessness to houses of worship because they're still trying to do what they've always done - provide connection, a shelter from the storm and forge forward in faith that there's a better world to come.
For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.
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