News Perspective Online September 2021

Back in Class

Students return to in-person classes in Dallas; H-G students return to hybrid format.

As they have every fall for more than 100 years – except in 2020 – students are returning to campus for classes at Perkins School of Theology.

In Dallas, orientation for new students took place on August 20, and classes began meeting in person on August 23.

Face-to-face classes for the Houston-Galveston (H-G) program are meeting this week, beginning August 30, for the first in-person portion of the hybrid program. Bishop Scott Jones preached at the opening chapel service.

“We’re genuinely excited to see our students in person again, for the first time since January of 2020,” said Dr. Dallas Gingles, Site Director of the Houston-Galveston Extension Program.

While the schedule and class formats are largely back to normal, some changes and accommodations for the COVID-19 pandemic will continue, in light of the surge of cases in Dallas and Harris Counties. Students, faculty members and staff will wear masks, per a temporary mask mandate, and practice social distancing where possible.

“Last year, we leaned toward online teaching; now, we’re leaning in-person,” said Andy Keck, who is Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives. “Both are complex. We’re ready to adjust, if need be, as we continue to navigate in this complex, in-between world.”

Chapel services have resumed, too. For the first time since March 12, 2020, Dallas students gathered in person on Wednesday, August 25, for weekly worship. Current plans are to continue the weekly services in person, but a few services may be offered via Zoom, live-streamed or pre-recorded, according to Dr. Mark W. Stamm, Professor of Christian Worship.

“It feels a little strange being back in the room,” said Stamm. “Am I absolutely confident that we’re 100% safe? I’d say we’re doing the best we can, and we’re willing to adjust as we move along.”

 Midday meals in the refectory are back at the Dallas campus this fall, although with some modifications. Box lunches will replace the cafeteria-style service, allowing students the option to carry their meals to other locations for social distancing. Students will need to reserve meals in advance.

Keck noted that the SMU health clinic is prepared to offer vaccinations, including boosters, and COVID testing, if needed, this fall.

COVID protocols for Perkins students in Dallas have necessarily factored in university-wide policies and Dallas County mandates, as well as the needs and policies of partner institutions such as churches.

“Many are working in their church contexts, interacting with people who may be immune compromised or vulnerable to the virus,” he said. “Keeping our students safe is very important to us.”

Out of the Hospital 

Normally, most H-G classes meet at Houston Methodist Hospital, but this fall they’re meeting at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Houston.

“We made the decision to relocate due to the latest surge in COVID-19 cases, to avoid potentially exposing students and overburdening the hospital,” said Gingles.

Following the H-G program’s usual (pre-pandemic) hybrid model, students will continue their studies online after this week, then return for another week of face-to-face classes November 8-13. The program had been online only from March 2020 through Summer 2021, due to the pandemic.

Meeting at St. Paul’s is nothing new; the church has always hosted at least one class each semester. Most H-G classes took place there until 2018, when St. Paul’s underwent renovations and Houston Methodist welcomed the students.

Gingles praised the generosity and support of St. Paul’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeff McDonald, a Perkins grad (M. Div., 2004) and church staff member Marisa Cisneros, who assisted with the logistics of arranging for the H-G program to meet at the church this fall. Perkins staff member Melissa Gooch also pitched in to arrange meals.

“St. Paul’s and I are grateful for this opportunity to work together with Perkins,” said McDonald. “I began my seminary career in what we used to call the Perkins South program and that foundation helped me in so many ways. I am glad to see the program growing and flourishing as a way to meet the needs of Houston area students and well as those who travel in and are a part of the hybrid program. New ways and thinking and doing our distinctive Wesleyan theological training will help our churches to thrive in the future.”

One new addition to the H-G program this fall: a class in Hebrew, taught by Dr. Jack Levison at the request of H-G students. Upwards of 20 students have signed up.

“Roy Heller and I have both taught in the H-G program and we both refer frequently to the Hebrew, and I think that has piqued the curiosity and stoked the hunger of students,” said Levison, who is W. J. A. Power Professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew. “Roy is a brilliant teacher, so it doesn’t surprise me that many students who took his class want to take Hebrew. Both of us have really tried to inspire in students a deep love of the Hebrew language.”

Levison added that he’s thankful that the hybrid course will include an in-person component this fall – two daylong classes, one taught in September and another in November, in addition to synchronous online classes that will meet every Monday evening.

“Having at least some of the course in person makes teaching much easier,” he said.  “Learning Hebrew is super hard. I have students sing songs and play games. It allows us to play our way into the language. And that will set the tone for the learning for the entire semester.”