This fall, schools and communities around the nation entered uncharted territory as they began the new school year during the ongoing threat of a global pandemic. For some U. S. Mennonite Brethren churches, this situation provided a unique opportunity to serve.
Two California churches, North Fresno Church and Mountain View Church, as well as Hesston MB Church in Kansas, are offering their church facilities as spaces for students to engage in distance learning or attend school with greater social distancing.
Supporting students, families
At North Fresno Church, 12 students sit at their own tables, each connected to his or her class meeting on the laptop or tablet in front of them. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the Roadrunner Central program provides WiFi and a quiet study environment for students to engage in distance learning.
When students started school online in mid-August, not all families had learning spaces for their children at home, says Roadrunner Central director Amanda Garcia Beaulieu.
“We have students who need access to WiFi because theirs at home is not the best; we have students that have families that only speak Spanish and so their parents cannot communicate with the teachers; we also have single parents who need to work,” Garcia Beaulieu says. “We also understand that being home provides such a big distraction to students. Being able to step into a ‘classroom’ setting with other students who are working on their own work makes it easier for them. We are also able to provide a safe, caring place for our students.”
All staff at Roadrunner Central are connected to NFC and are either regular church attenders or current or former interns of the Micah Project, a 10-month discipleship and leadership development program of NFC that focuses on biblical justice.
“We help (students) connect to their class, we help navigate the various programs that the school uses for assignments and tests, we encourage the students to stay focused and provide support for the small meltdowns that we have from week to week,” Garcia Beaulieu says.
Roadrunner Central’s 12 students range in age from kindergarten to sixth grade—students whose teachers had listed as either not logging in regularly or turning in their work.
Members of Mountain View Church similarly discovered that distance learning can be a difficult juggling act for students, teachers, working parents, stay-at-home parents and even grandparents.
“One of our favorite things to do at Mountain View is minister to kids and love our community,” lead pastor Fred Leonard says. “When we heard about how hard distance learning is on families, we just knew we needed to step in. It’s what Jesus would do.”
Twice a week from early September through October, MVC and 11 volunteers welcomed 23 kids from four different school districts to its Distance Learning Hub. The students ranged in age from transitional kindergarten—for students whose birthdays land after the kindergarten cutoff but before Dec. 8—to sixth grade. Registration for the hub cost just $5 per family.
Students are set up in the church’s classrooms and outfitted with headphones, tablets or laptops, reliable WiFi and their daily distance learning schedules.
Both Fresno churches have been careful to take precautions to keep students and volunteers safe.
Each morning, volunteers, staff and students at NFC participate in precautionary measures, including temperature checks at the door, screening for possible COVID-19 symptoms and supplying each student with hand sanitizer. Students’ tables are spaced six feet apart to allow for social distancing.
“Everyone wears masks while they are in the program,” Garcia Beaulieu says.
At MVC, the students also sit at separate desks. Each morning at check-in, parents sign a COVID-19 waiver and students have their temperature checked. Hand washing and sanitizing is a regular occurrence throughout the day.
Students doing distance learning at both churches are also provided with food during the day. At MVC, students enjoy snacks and a homemade lunch made by volunteers.
Fresno Unified School District provides morning snacks and lunches for all students learning at NFC. Each morning, a staff member picks up food from the neighborhood high school using meal vouchers provided by the vice principal of the students’ school. Others have shown interest in volunteering to make lunch for students, Garcia Beaulieu says.
Opportunity for fun, ministry
These distance learning setups allow for students who have been stuck at home for months on end to enjoy in-person social interaction with their peers.
At Roadrunner Central, staff has been creative in creating games and physical activities to get students moving while maintaining limited physical interaction between students.
“Our break time usually includes 30 minutes of stretching so each student can have their own space, and it gets them moving,” Garcia Beaulieu says. “For our lunch-time activity, we are able to play relay games which gets the students running after a morning sitting in front of their laptop/tablet screen.”
Lisa Fowler, children’s ministry director at MVC, also says that the Distance Learning Hub has provided a unique opportunity for ministry.
“Some of the kids we serve need to feel loved by someone other than their families,” Fowler says. “Distance learning has been hard for them. Being able to sit with kids and show up for them is one of the best ways we can share Jesus with them.”
According to Fowler, several of the kids being served have never been to church, but on early release Wednesdays, the hub hosts Bible Club, where students worship, hear a Bible story, work on memory verses and play games.
“I love the way the kids’ faces light up during Bible Club,” Fowler says. “Especially the kids who have never been to church. They’re having such a great time and we’re planting seeds. It’s really incredible.”
Parents, too, are getting some relief thanks to the ministry. They are grateful to be able to catch their breath knowing their children are safe, having fun with other children and getting their work done.
“We had just talked with our daughter’s distance learning teacher about our idea to pull her from public school to homeschool her ourselves when Mountain View Church advertised their new distance learning hub,” Erin Coburn, MVC member and parent of a kindergartner, says. “It is clearly an answered prayer. We desired a safe place for her to learn while I could focus on my younger children. The icing on the cake is that she’s learning about Jesus, too.”
Ready to help
More than 1,500 miles away from Fresno in Hesston, Kan., Hesston MB Church is ready and willing to provide help to the local school district if the need arises.
J.L. Martin, pastor of children and family, says that the church was approached over the summer by the superintendent of Hesston schools, Ben Proctor, about the possibility of hosting a class of elementary students if there was a need for greater social distancing in classrooms due to increasing COVID-19 cases.
“As school was preparing to start, the principals of the middle and high school took a tour,” Martin says. “The principals decided to use Crosswinds Conference Center for the middle school kids and two of the churches for two grades at the elementary school.”
Hesston MB was chosen as a potential site for a class of second grade students.
“Second grade teachers have visited the church several times to try and figure out how it would work, because it is more than just classrooms,” Martin says. “It is also food service, bus drop off, PE, art, etcetera.”
The school district follows certain “gating criteria” to help determine if and when they would need to provide greater social distancing or even remote learning for students. The criteria takes into account the positivity rate and active case count in the county, as well as student and staff absences.
Hesston schools moved into the “orange” zone of the gating criteria in early November, which meant that teachers, students and parents began to prepare for the possibility of a couple elementary classes moving off-site to Hesston MB and Whitestone Mennonite Church.
As of early December, however, the church had not yet been called upon to host the class, in part due to the number of COVID-related absences in the school.
“They had expected to start having second graders at the church on Dec. 2, but decided they could still stay at school,” Martin says.
Martin says that the church continues to stay in close communication week by week with the superintendent, so they are ready to begin hosting students at any time.
—with files from Allie Rodriguez and Janae Rempel
Jessica Vix Allen is a freelance writer living in Blue Springs, Missouri. She and her husband, Joel, are both graduates of Tabor College. The couple has two children.