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Oneida sees positives in midst of coronavirus challenges

 

When schools in Kentucky closed because of the global pandemic, Oneida Baptist Institute faced the same challenges as other secondary schools — plus a few challenges others didn't face.

As a boarding school which has students from outside the U.S., Oneida was concerned with the welfare of those students with no close connection to the area. Too, the majority of staff members live on campus, so that added another dynamic to deal with for Oneida President Larry Gritton.

"We were fortunate in the timing of our spring break," he noted. Oneida students were out the week of March 5, and when the pandemic intensified in this country, Oneida extended the spring break for two more weeks. "When we were into that period, that was when the governor recommended and then mandated school closings. By March 20, we made the decision to cancel school for the rest of the academic year."

That set into motion an array of actions and concerns …

• Oneida enacted a spending freeze, which included halting construction of a new dining hall, which is about 25 percent "We weren't borrowing any money for it, but thought we might need the money for something more pressing," said Gritton. "It's hard to justify building a multi-million dollar facility in this time period."

• For students, the school quickly adopted an online method of instruction to finish the school year. For its younger students, teachers prepared packets with assignments for students to finish.

"You would think we'd have a large percentage without Internet access, but we have found very few who didn't have it." For younger students, it was decided their instruction would be more productive by having actual paper rather than a computer screen. Teachers prepared packets, and parents drove by and were handed the packets while still in their car.

• While about half of the staff has been furloughed for the rest of the school year, those staffers can continue to live in on-campus housing, receive a grocery stipend and continue to have utilities, health, life and dental insurance paid by the school. "The biggest part of our compensation is not a paycheck," Gritton said. "It's our hope that all staff can be called back when the country goes back to work 'full throttle.'" He added that some expenses have decreased with no students on campus, but that many of Oneida's expenses are fixed. The utility cost is one of the school's major expenses, and it is expected to decline slightly.

• Then there was the question of how to help its international "That was my biggest concern. We told them that if they needed to, they could come back to the dorms — although we hoped that wouldn't be necessary. As it worked out, none of them came back. They all opted to stay where they were (on spring break). Those 58 international students stayed with friends or host families, and eventually were able to get flights to return to their home countries."

But that was a heartbreaking experience for Gritton and the Oneida family. "You get so close to the kids, but then there is no closure. We had no idea on March 5 that we wouldn't be resuming classes. The reality is that some of them we may not see again."

All things considered, Gritton has seen the Lord's favor on the school. "The Lord is in charge and sees every day ahead. We trust He will use this for His glory and our good.

"I'm so grateful the Lord directed us to go back to our roots — attracting local students to attend. Seven years ago we only had nine commuting students. It was not a hard sell to get students from Clay County for two reasons — it's free, and the geographic convenience. For some to attend public school would require a 1 1/2-hour bus ride."

Because of its remote location, Gritton said Oneida hasn't faced the shock of stay-at-home orders to the degree that people in other areas have. "There are some advantages to being in a remote area — where you're not going to a movie theatre or the grocery store several times a week."

With so much uncertainty ahead as a result of the pandemic, Gritton is hopeful that a graduation ceremony might be held in August or September.

"The majority of our domestic — and our international students who come back to the States — usually go to college in Kentucky," Gritton said, so that would allow the majority of graduates to experience a commencement event.

"The pandemic will enable — or force — churches to think about things that they probably needed to do but didn't because of criticism," Gritton observed. "But because of the situation, it forces you to make some changes."

One of those changes has been a re-evaluation of Oneida's appeal through the Barkley Moore Offering. "June is typically the month that appeal is made to Kentucky Baptist churches, but that promotion has been placed on hold. In the past, we would mail a box of information — a video, posters, letter and literature — to 2,400 churches in June. We decided to forego that mailing, a savings of $25,000. The plan is to send a letter and a smaller promotional piece later.

"Our people (Kentucky Baptists) seem to still be giving. I have been encouraged with what I have seen — that's a testimony to Kentucky Baptists and giving to missions. Some have given us larger gifts than usual because of the circumstances."

Gritton noted that Oneida opted not to apply for the government's Payroll Protection Plan because "there are too many unknowns."

The on-campus staff has been active. "A staff-driven effort was developed to provide meals for local families — with the school providing sack lunches once a week and having some food giveaways as a result of some businesses donating food to the school," Gritton said.

Oneida's plan is to not make an appeal for an offering because "churches and their ministries are being impacted too. If a church is not meeting its financial needs, we don't need to ask them for an offering now. When the time is right, we'll update them."

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