This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Coronavirus prompts organizations to make changes

Colleges are replacing in-person classes with remote classes. Mennonite World Conference is canceling an international gathering in British Columbia. Mennonite Disaster Service is closing all projects. Personal care and nursing homes are restricting access. Mennonite Health Services has canceled a conference. Churches are suspending all gatherings.

These are just a few of the ways COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is impacting Mennonite organizations, schools and churches. Also on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Multiple U.S. states have ordered all schools closed.

For Mennonite Health Assembly, it meant canceling its March 18-21 conference in Greenville, S.C., because of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

In a note to conference attendees, MHS noted its members “serve the most vulnerable populations and we believe that it is our priority to do everything we can to minimize as much risk as possible.”

According to MHS President Karen Lehman, its 78 members are staying current with directives from the Centers for Disease Control and their local state authorities about ways to minimize risk for their residents.

MHS sent out information to its members this week encouraging them to heighten infection control best-practices, review all infection-control policies and procedures and consider worst-case scenarios if COVID-19 is found in their facilities.

Personal care and nursing homes like Landis Homes in Lititz, Pa., and Mennonite Friendship Communities in South Hutchinson, Kan., have implemented strict entrance policies for their personal care and nursing homes, limiting access.

Following recommendations from the office of the governor of Ohio to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in that state, Bluffton University is canceling in-person classes and implementing remote classes March 13 to April 13. Rosedale Bible College in Irwin switched to online classes March 16 to April 13.

Bluffton canceled all indoor gatherings of 20 or more and all public events, also until April 13. Outdoor sports will continue at this time, but indoor team practices will not be permitted. The cafeteria is expanding its use of to-go boxes to limit large gatherings.

“I recognize that this is a deeply disruptive time in our world,” said Bluffton President Jane Wood. “Bluffton is a caring community, and I invite us to come together and support our efforts to follow the governor’s recommendations and continue to live out Bluffton’s educational mission in all that we do.”

Several colleges made similar announcements March 12. Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., suspended all college-sponsored co-curricular activities through at least April 5 as it transitions over spring break March 16-20 to commence online classes March 23. Students approved to remain on campus during spring break may do so. Anyone who leaves campus must remain away until at least April 5.

Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., is moving classes to online instruction March 17 to April 3, in addition to canceling all public events and public access to campus through April 3. Students are not encouraged to move out of residence halls, except for those who are immuno-compromised.

Hesston (Kan.) College canceled classes March 13 to transition to online classes through at least April 13. After spring break March 14-22, during which all college-sponsored travel was canceled, students have the option of remaining home during the distance-learning period, or returning to campus where they may be placed in isolation for a period of time.

Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University is suspending all in-person classes March 16-21 and postponed or canceled some activities to offer classes online through April 12, when the situation will be reevaluated. Students are welcome to stay on campus or return home.

Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., is canceling classes March 16-20 to prepare for what is anticipated to be online, not face-to-face, courses after spring break March 23-27. Students can decide whether to stay on campus or temporarily return home. Athletic activities and all indoor gatherings of 50 or more people are cancelled or postponed.

Goshen (Ind.) College is continuing classes through March 18, and switching to online classes March 19-20. It is canceling large gatherings and public events. Classes will continue in this fashion until further notice, and athletic competitions are suspended until at least April 1. Study-Service Term students in Tanzania and Ecuador are in stable contexts in the last weeks of their term. The college is evaluating off-campus May term courses and summer SST units.

Congregations across the country are canceling worship services as some implement online videoconferencing tools. Those that still meet are adjusting how they meet and worship elements like communion and offering collection.

In Washington state, Evergreen Mennonite Church in Kirkland has been replacing in-person worship services in March with online video conferencing. Seattle Mennonite Church is suspending all large church gatherings of 10 or more people through the end of March. The church office will be closed, and pastors are encouraged to use phone or other non-face-to-face means to connect with members.

“We don’t make this decision lightly, and we do it with the deepest concern for the well-being of all in our congregation and in the broader community,” said lead pastor Megan Ramer. “We will continue to track the evolving situation and will reassess our decision in the coming weeks.”

At least six other Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference congregations in Oregon and Idaho are also canceling worship services, along with at least eight churches in Central District and seven churches that are part of Eastern District and Franconia Conference canceled worship services, with some providing virtual worship experiences or materials.

Some congregations in Germany and the Netherlands are canceling worship services, and the Association of German Mennonite Congregations is evaluating whether to hold a March 28 conference in Stuttgart.

For Mennonite World Conference, the spread of the virus led it to cancel its Renewal 2027 public event March 28-29 in Abbotsford, B.C., and Executive Committee meetings.

“We are cognizant of our global witness,” said MWC general secretary César García. “We are choosing safety by postponing this event.”

The Renewal event will now be held in 2022, and the Executive Committee will meet online to make the most urgent decisions.

Other COVID-19 impacts:

— Mennonite Central Committee had not canceled any orientations or other meetings as of March 11, but continued to monitor the situation, said Laura Kalmar, associate director of communications and donor relations in Canada. The organization has limited travel to impacted areas, and project and partner visits in some countries have been postponed. There are no restrictions on travel in the U.S. and Canada.

— Mennonite Church USA postponed the Constituency Leaders Council meeting scheduled for March 26-28 in Kansas City, Mo.. MC USA hopes to reschedule it in the late spring or summer. The Executive Board meeting scheduled for April 23-25 in Philadelphia is also postponed.

— The U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches canceled board meetings scheduled for the coming week in Denver.

— Mennonite Disaster Service announced March 13 all projects are closing. MDS encouraged all volunteers to cancel scheduled travel.

“It’s not a decision we ever expected to make,” said executive director Kevin King. “But given the rapidly changing situation with the virus, we needed to do it. The health and safety of our volunteers, and of the people in the communities where we are serving, is our top priority.”

— Mennonite Economic Development Associates has instructed staff to use their discretion for nonessential travel.

— The Illinois Mennonite Relief Sale, which was set to take place March 20-21 at the Interstate Center in Bloomington, was canceled. The sale’s executive secretary, Ruthie Roth of Morton, told the Bloomington Pantagraph that organizers are meeting March 14 to consider what to do next.

— The Pennsylvania Relief Sale scheduled for April 3-4 at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg was canceled and organizers have not decided if it can be rescheduled.

“There’s a better than average chance that most of the spring sales will be canceling, or postponing until a safer time,” said MCC North American relief sales coordinator Les Gustafson-Zook. “Everyone is very concerned about exposing their volunteers to the virus, since many of the volunteers at the sales fit into the vulnerable category.”

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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