By Judith Jolma
March 20, 2022; Phoenix, Ariz. -- Conference season is a long and deeply loved tradition for homeschoolers, but in a post-COVID world, it may be going away - or at least moving to online venues.
With inflation soaring, and large gatherings still stifled in many cities by COVID restrictions, homeschool convention coordinators are finding it prohibitively expensive to host under-attended conventions. However, if the St. Kosmas Orthodox Christian Education Conference was an indicator this year, families and exhibitors want this tradition to live on.
Independently funded and hosted, the St. Kosmas Conference sold out attracting guests from 30 states and Canada for the three-day event March 18 through 20, 2022. Previously held at a ranch in California, the event was moved to Phoenix this year due to California’s oppressive regulations. This year, guests were treated to desert vistas and wildlife at Gold Canyon Golf Resort as they enjoyed lectures by a star-studded line-up of speakers and shopped the curriculum fair.
The children’s program began a day earlier with an Oratorical Festival (a public speaking competition). Children from grade school through high school enjoyed a camp-like atmosphere with
archery, art, stargazing, and lectures just for them. At mealtime, the resort lawn rang with the sound of children’s laughter and commotion as kids played tag and parents mingled with the speakers and exhibitors.
Homeschool parents who attend conferences and conventions in the summer have long found encouragement and tips-of-the-trade from presenters at these events -- some well-known, others new to the circuit -- each serving up a feast of wisdom and willing commiseration about the challenges of home education. True to the traditions, the St. Kosmas Conference presented speakers who are well-known and loved by its Orthodox audience. Fr. Josiah Trenham, director of Patristic Nectar, discussed raising children in a post-COVID world and another on seeking purity in today’s culture.
Parents shook their heads as he highlighted the many dangers to children within our culture and the threats of war and economic collapse. But then he soberly reminded his audience: “There is one
thing that is far more of a threat to your children than any of that. You are the greatest danger to your children’s holiness, happiness, and success in life.” Fr. Josiah lovingly asked parents to consider that their own purity of heart would be the determining factor for their children -- far more than external threats. “If you want your children to avoid the sin of gluttony, you must manage your own eating habits and model fasting and temperance. If you want them to be diligent, you must start the day with the sun. Never was there a saint who made a habit of sleeping in. If you want your children to have happy marriages (and who does not want that for their children?), you must work on your own marriage and model love and fidelity within the home in which they grow.”
Of course, he also elaborated on the happy outcome of the mother and father who diligently live their faith and virtue within the home. “The dangers of the world cannot touch the children whose parents reject the world's entertainments and passions.”
John Mark Reynolds, President of The Saint Constantine School in Huston, Texas., discussed higher education, and “understanding the reality before us.” He also gave a presentation on starting Orthodox schools. Mark Tarpley discussed science, Kathleen Cutter Clayton math and Dimitrios Katsiklis offered several workshops on Byzantine Music.
“Sometimes I get discouraged about the state of the world,” Dr. Reynolds told the gathered crowd of parents. “But then I come here and see hope. The solution is for more coming together.”
World-wide the events industry was hit hard by COVID restrictions and many wondered if large-scale in-person meetings were destined to go the way of the corroded telephone -- relics of the past. It was a question American Express asked in its 2022 Global Meetings and Events Forecast: “From a global perspective, our industry is overwhelmingly optimistic and anticipates that most meetings and events will have an in-person component in 2022,” the report said. “We are witnessing a pent-up demand come to fruition, with meetings being booked just as soon as government restrictions and corporate policies allow.”
The homeschool community has certainly felt this “pent-up” desire for in-person conferences to return, many expressing “Zoom fatigue.” Over the course of the quarantine and subsequent restrictions, the convention industry coped by moving to online platforms to host its conventions. The move was at first a welcome innovation allowing families access to thousands of presentation and exhibitor booths from the comfort of their own homes -- after bedtime! But they soon yearned to gather once again to laugh, cry and share ideas.
“While our industry embraced virtual meetings last year out of necessity,” The American Express report said, “There is no substitute to meeting face to face. In-person meetings are essential for the collaboration, innovation, relationships, and trust needed to achieve collective goals.”
Due to the nature of the work, home educating families naturally battle feelings of isolation and celebrate the return of conference season each year as a chance to reconnect with like-minded families. But homeschool coordinators are going to have to cope with the new price tag of hosting large-scale events due to a wide range of pandemic-related factors including changes to government restrictions and travel guidelines.
Of those surveyed, 64% of conference coordinators industry-wide reported a dramatic increase in the cost of hosting conventions. Another new concern was finding space to host meetings that were both large enough to accommodate social distancing and technically equipt to support virtual hybrid conventions.
Despite the pining for in-person gatherings, the new virtual conference is here to stay and conferences need to adapt, according to American Express: “In fact, they are expected to play a key role moving forward.” While the traditional gatherings are well-loved, many value the virtual conference equally or even more because of the convenience. “Some meeting types are better suited than others for the virtual format.”
So moving forward, the industry predicts 81% of meetings in 2022 are expected to have a face-to-face component. 42% will be in-person only, 39% hybrid, and only 19% virtual only.
But the question all coordinators are grappling with remains “How do you keep your virtual and in-person attendees engaged?” For that, there should be no surprise that factors included features that every good host has always known makes for good hospitality: food and entertainment. At these two factors, the St. Kosmas conference coordinators excelled having fought to keep the events as normal and affordable for parents as possible without sacrificing quality in any way. Their efforts seem to be paying off. While many homeschool events shuttered this year, buckling under the high cost of inflation and COVID regulations, this convention turned families away, being booked to capacity.
The spring-break conference took place as Orthodox Christians are observing a rigorous Lenten fast in preparation for Easter (Pascha). In respect of those keeping the fast, all the meals served were vegan but carefully handmade packed full of energy and flavor. The best-attended exhibitor booth was the SAGOM Farmer’s Market, which offered up an assortment of Lenten snacks prepared by the nuns at St. Anthony’s Monastery in Florence, Ariz.
and beautiful line of lesson planners and calendars. A team of children happily exhibited their Orthodox publication Future of Orthodoxy entirely written and produced by children.
Exhibitor booths at homeschool conferences are parents’ opportunity to thumb through the curriculum and ask sometimes difficult questions about how to help their students develop academic skills. It is a personal and tactile opportunity parents simply cannot replicate in online conferences.
While many parents appreciate the convenience of virtual gatherings, talks, and exhibitor halls, the parents at St. Kosmas hope the in-person conference never goes away.
One mother came all the way from Canada to attend the live conference. “I’m just filling my cup,” she said, expressing the danger of homeschool burnout and the need to come face-to-face with other families, vendors, and speakers to gain momentum for the following year. “You just can’t do this online,” she said.
By Judith Jolma, Founder of Sophia Homeschool.
Sophia Homeschool teaches parents how to homeschool. Learn more about our training at Sophiahomeschool.com
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Photos courtesy of Mariam Hall, St. Kosmas Conference Photographer.