Patrick Frerking just finished his first school year as principal of a Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran High School navigating a global pandemic, but he’s a seasoned veteran when it comes to weathering infectious diseases within a school community. Having taught in countries across Asia for nearly 20 years prior to becoming Concordia’s principal in 2016, Frerking has a unique perspective on how school systems and families adapt in the face of a virus outbreak.
When many of Fort Wayne’s schools closed in mid-March in response to escalating concerns over the COVID-19 virus, it was the culmination of ongoing talks beginning in February. Even earlier than that, Frerking and Lutheran school administrators across the country suspected action would have to be taken, given that their sister schools in China had closed in January and COVID-19 was rapidly spreading across the globe.
Before coming to Fort Wayne, Frerking and his wife, Sue, were educators in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Hanoi, Vietnam, first moving to China in 1993. The pair taught in international schools founded by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the same parent organization of Concordia Lutheran High School in Fort Wayne, as well as other Lutheran schools in the area.
After relocating from Hong Kong to Shanghai in July 1998, Patrick and Sue became faculty of Concordia International School Shanghai, a college preparatory school with students in preschool through high school whose parents are expatriate business, government and human care development workers from the U.S., Canada, Europe and many Asian countries. While the city’s exponential growth brought excitement, the couple eventually found themselves in the midst of a virus outbreak. In February 2003, the World Health Organization issued an alert for a severe strain of pneumonia originating from southern China, which was soon identified as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — commonly known as SARS. Cases began to rise, and the virus crossed seas through international air travel.
Though there was a lot of uncertainty about the public information being shared by Beijing authorities, Frerking said his school began making contingency plans for remote learning in late March 2003 as families packed up to return to their home countries. Just a few weeks later, about 40% of the student body had left Shanghai, bringing their school materials with them. The students who remained in Shanghai attended classes on campus during the day, while e-learning was offered via email at night.
In a time already rife with turbulence and confusion, Patrick and Sue were anticipating the birth of their second child. Sue was eight months pregnant when the WHO released its first SARS alert — ruling out a flight back to North America — and due to a hotbed of the virus in Hong Kong, the Frerkings were unable to travel there for better medical care.
Frerking described the maternity ward as a gymnasium-sized room filled with IVs. Visitor access was severely limited, and other precautions — much like those practiced during the current pandemic — were taken. Despite the circumstances, all was well in the end, as Patrick and Sue welcomed their daughter Kaylee into the world.
Much like the doctors at Parkview Health in Fort Wayne, Frerking holds the doctors and medical staff of Shanghai East Hospital in high regard: “When I think about these extraordinary measures, I think it’s a testimony to people all over the world. There are awesome people, kind people, giving people everywhere that want to help you out.”
Pat and Sue later learned that Kaylee was the first foreign-born child in a Shanghai hospital. Seventeen years later, she’s completing her junior year at Concordia in Fort Wayne amidst another pandemic.
“God places us and uses our experiences to prepare us for the future,” Frerking said. “In the years since SARS-1 in 2003, we have experienced outbreaks and alerts for bird flu, MERS and now COVID-19 (SARS-2) in the various locations we have called home.”
When COVID-19 began circulating in China, Frerking kept in close contact with his friends at the international schools in Hong Kong, China and Vietnam, taking note of how they were responding. Concordia’s sister schools in Hong Kong and Shanghai closed after classes on Jan. 17, and began implementing distance learning Feb. 3, at which point their students had returned to their home countries around the world. Within just a couple weeks, Frerking’s conversations with those educators shifted from “What can I do to help you in Asia?” to “What advice do you have for me when we need to close school?”
“The model of what we’re using at Concordia High School is very much based upon what our friends and my colleagues out in Asia have come up with,” he said.
Concordia’s last in-person day of this school year was March 13, with the third quarter being fully completed before schools across Fort Wayne shut their doors for the remainder of the spring semester. Remote learning began March 17 as students shifted to school days lasting from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The last student day was May 21.
“I’m so proud of our Concordia Lutheran High School community here — the commitment and hard work of our teachers and students, and behind the scenes by the rest of the administrators, the school counselors and the student support,” Frerking said.
While Frerking heeded advice from the international schools in Asia, he was also inspired by the solidarity between Fort Wayne-area districts — despite political and cultural forces shaping the narrative of COVID-19.
“We’re asking ‘What are we capable of doing that has our own unique element to it?’” he said. “There have been a lot of conversations with the folks up at Northwest Allen schools, East Allen schools, Fort Wayne Community, Southwest, our network of the Catholic and Lutheran schools, Blackhawk and other Christian or non-Christian, non-public schools. There’s a lot of sharing and a lot of mutual respect going on.
“In 2003, some of the things that we as a school and a school community had to deal with were just orders and edicts that came — ‘Your school will close on such and such date, no questions asked’ — and there’s not a lot of lead-up time to that. … One of the things I might have picked up through the years in Asia is ‘How do you prepare yourself to be more than just reactionary?’ I think some of those skills came through especially as February had worn on and there was more and more information coming out about the realities of this virus. … It’s a real honor knowing that everybody is not only looking out for their best interests and the kids in their school community, but for the community at large.”
If and when Concordia and other Fort Wayne schools return to something resembling traditional schooling in the fall, Frerking hopes to be ahead of the curve, learning from Concordia’s sister school in Shanghai, which just returned to in-person academics after closing in January.
“We’re going to hear some of the protocols they’re doing as far as health checks and temperature checks, and some of the procedures they have to do in their classrooms,” he said.
Though end-of-year festivities have fizzled out for high school students in Fort Wayne — which has been particularly difficult for seniors — Concordia plans to be at least one school in the city to still host a graduation commencement.
The school had planned to graduate a class of 180 in the Embassy Theatre, which typically welcomes about 2,000 Concordia students and their families each year. In keeping with social distancing guidelines, the class of 2020 will instead graduate at Parkview Field, which has a capacity of more than 8,000 people. The commencement ceremony is currently planned for July 11.
“Concordia has historically been a strong community, and that’s a testament to the people that are part of the place today and have been a part of the place for the past 85 years,” Frerking said. “Graduation is an important piece of our tradition, so hats off to the people at Parkview Field. I think they’re even more excited than we are. That’s a good infectious.”