As the pandemic continues, faith formation and youth ministry groups have come up with innovative ways to keep educating students. The Evangelist spoke with youth leaders at St. Joseph’s Church in Scotia, Our Lady of Grace Church in Ballston Lake, St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Niskayuna, Church of the Immaculate Conception in Glenville, and Christ the King Church in Westmere to see how they were continuing their work during COVID-19.

At the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Glenville, Christine Goss, director for Youth Ministry, is taking a three-pronged approach, giving parents of students in Grades 7-12 the option to choose between in-person sessions with small groups, taking the course entirely online, or having parents lead suggested activities on their own schedule.

After surveying the parish, Goss said approximately 65 percent of parents preferred the first model, which involves small in-person groups, where students will choose two out of six topics to focus on throughout the course and meet for three 90-minute sessions.

“It’s a deeper dive for a specific topic of faith versus a base-level type curriculum where every week your topic would be different and more surface level,” Goss said.

If families choose to take the course entirely online, they will be enrolled in Catholicism 101, a platform designed by St. Mary’s Press, which includes modules that are self-paced. After each module, there will be a scheduled virtual discussion with a catechist. The third option, Family Foundations at Home, will be completed on a family’s own schedule, with students emailing a short written or video reflection on what they learned that month.

“I think this is something that could stick with us moving forward where we’re really going to give families the flexibility of choosing what works for them,” Goss said.

Grace Fay, pastoral associate for Youth Ministry at both Our Lady of Grace in Ballston Lake and St. Joseph’s in Scotia, said her approach to ministry involves in-person, hybrid and fully remote learning.

Fay said many parents have asked if the online program would be akin to independent study. Fay says that is not the case.

“Our online program is actually online classes because it’s the same curriculum we do in the classroom,” Fay said, “but we’re setting it up so that whether you have an online catechist or you’re meeting with me, they’re doing the same curriculum they’re doing in the classroom, but in an online setting.”

Fay has also started to offer 10th graders and older the option of attending a two-hour women’s retreat, done entirely online through Google Zoom. 

Lisa Kuban, pastoral associate for Youth Ministry at St. Kateri Tekakwitha in Niskayuna is taking a similar approach, with families given the option between a hybrid model of coming in once a month while completing work online or attending class solely online. 

For the hybrid method, Kuban says students will be able to FaceTime with peers in their grade while the catechist cracks open the broader monthly lesson.

While each grade will get their own week, in-person classes will be capped at 10 students to account for social-distancing requirements. Each month a theme will be set for all grades (1-9), with coursework modified to fit each grade level.

For example, in October the theme will be “Prayer,” and a video for that topic will be shown to all grades, while each level explores the topic deeper depending on their skill level. For younger students, one task might involve setting up a prayer space, while older students may be asked to write a reflection on what they did to enhance their prayer life throughout the month.

“That’s my biggest concern as a youth leader. A virtual program is great to teach them the history or the doctrine of the Church, but it’s hard to foster that internal faith piece I think virtually, especially for younger kids,” Kuban said.

For students who enroll in the online-only model, they will also adhere to the general master lesson as their peers in the hybrid classes. Every month students will either watch short videos and answer reflection questions or watch a movie and then attend a Zoom discussion with the rest of their class.

“That’s been my largest hurdle through all of this, the loss of personal connection with the kids and families,” Kuban said.

Lisanne Jensen, pastoral associate for Faith Formation and Youth Ministry at Christ the King, stepped into her position on July 13 after serving at St. James Parish in Chatham and The Church of St. Joseph in Stuyvesant Falls. Since March, faith formation has been put on hold. Now, Christ the King is offering exclusively online courses from October through December as a safety precaution.

“It’s difficult because youth ministry tends to be centered around events, so I feel like the pandemic has given us the chance to re-evaluate and think, ‘How are we carrying out our ministries?’ ” Jensen said, “Maybe we just need to get creative.”

One event that can be done at home is the church’s annual Service Week. From Oct 17-24, young people will have opportunities to write letters and cards to nursing homes and homebound parishioners.

Jensen, like many other leaders in youth ministry, sent out a survey to families asking them to vote on which learning model they preferred for their child. The majority of votes, over 60 percent, stated parents wished to have the entire curriculum online.

While coursework will mimic the curriculum students would have in-person through following along with a workbook, once a week students will also attend a Google Zoom or Google Meet class with a catechist who will discuss the material with them. For students in preschool and kindergarten, Christ the King will provide craft materials, among additional resources, that parents can pick up at the church to be used via Zoom while a catechist guides them.

“I want them to know their faith is always present and that it’s a source of support and their parish is always there for them, even if we can’t meet in person. I try to keep that in the foremost of my mind.”

A mental-health speaker will be featured in a Zoom session to help all students navigate the stress and anxiety they may be facing during this time, Jensen said.

“I just want to provide families with what they need — just so they know their parish is still here to support them,” Jensen said. “Even if we’re not gathering in person, I just hope they’ll always know God is with them no matter what.”