Rainbows & Snowballs: Separated from their students by COVID-19, teachers find innovative ways to connect

Wednesday, March 25, 2020
Storm Lake teacher Melanie Langner was reading a book to her students from home Monday when, unbeknown to her, a squirrel made an unexpected appearance.

It can be tough for a kid to be stuck at home. Maybe even tougher for their teacher.

“The teachers of Storm Lake desperately miss our kids and can’t wait to see their smiling faces,” said Melanie Langer, a member of the elementary staff.

On the Sunday night of the announcement that schools would close as a COVID-19 precaution, she remembers being overwhelmed with emotion.

Alta-Aurelia educator Chris Reinert went on a “Snowball Run” Tuesday to be pelted by students from a distance.
/Photos submitted

“We had anticipated it - we’re avid CNN watchers in our household, and the announcement from Dr. Cole wasn’t a surprise. But when the reality of schools being shut down hits you, it’s like a ton of bricks. It broke my heart. Our students are our kids.”

She struggles with the idea that some of her students’ birthdays are passing without the class being able to celebrate. They are moments and memories that cannot be made up.

For area teachers, within hours after the announcement, efforts had turned to how they could stay in touch with the children and their families.

Newell-Fonda staff members are delivering food to their families in need.

Teachers quickly marshaled resources, sending letters or packets home with checklists that families could follow to keep their students engaged with learning and creativity.

Attention also immediately turned to social media. Langner’s class already had its own Facebook page, with about half the parents as members. “I knew I could use that as a tool. I started out mainly with fun and uplifting things - art lessons, books, ways to get to me. I wanted to stress creative things they could do at home.”

By this week, she had begun live video reading books to the kids, helped by children’s authors who have waived copyright laws for such readings.

Rainbows have become a way for quarantined families to communicate their support around the community.

“I was really pretty nervous. I have the kids in video, but I had never filmed myself talking to a computer,” Langer said. “I sat in my window and read a story about a class that had to come together during the school year in a difficult situation, which I though was appropriate.”

At the same time, though, an inquisitive squirrel had discovered a feeder her family had stocked just outside the window.

“So apparently, while I was reading, I had a squirrel sitting over my shoulder reading along with me - so that reading got a lot more attention than I had bargained for,” she laughs.

The district also has a Tornadoes at Home Facebook page where lots of links on activities, fitness and more is being assembled daily. One day this week, the bus system used to carry food around the community was also stocked with free children’s books being distributed.

Concerned about seniors potentially missing out on many of the important final moments of their high school careers, the district is using its own Facebook page to post senior class member individual tributes.

Other area schools are adapting with all kinds of unique tech applications - such as St. Mary’s hosting a “virtual try out” for its dance team.

Alta-Aurelia was planning a Teacher Parade on Tuesday in both communities, waving to their students as they stepped outside along the route. Staff member Chris Reinert took a jog around Alta, inviting kids to pelt him with snowballs from a distance, which they did enthusiastically. (See video on the Pilot-Tribune Facebook page).

Newell-Fonda’s staff is manning a fleet of vehicles taking lunches to students who need them in their communities. Teachers are also communicating regularly with students through email.

Though most teachers have utilized tech literacy in many ways in the classroom already, the COVID-19 outbreak caused many to instantly step it up. “When it’s suddenly the only option, you very quickly learn new ways to use it as a tool,” Langer says.

Her own kids’ orchestra teacher immediately began posting through Google Classroom. “It kept them on their toes musically, which is really appreciated.”

Her son’s advanced ecology teacher quickly posted a message. “It’s not so much about assignments as it is ‘We’re here for you, what do you need, are you worried about anything?’ In times like these, just reaching out to let young people know they are cared for means the world.”

Into week two, the void intensifies. “We’re missing kids so much. I’ve even wondered if the families would welcome me driving by their houses honking. In a video today, saying goodbye I really got choked up. We never had that chance - to say goodbye to them. It’s heartbreaking.”

The children, however, seem to be faring well in the new reality of quarantine.

“Parents are allowing them to post and make videos, and its great to see how happy they are being with their parents. In reality, though, we know that isn’t the reality for every child,” Langner said. “We know some kids are home alone all day, or being watched by a sibling, because their moms and dads just have to work. Those kids need stimulation, and that does worry us.”

One way the community is reaching out is through rainbows - rainbows in the windows, rainbows drawn in chalk.

After an art challenge by an Iowa Facebook site, the designs began to take on a life of their own.

“It’s fun to be able to go for a walk and look for them in the neighborhoods. Tonight I’m going for a drive to check it out. I’ve seen three or four posts just today showing rainbows people have put up. It’s a way to communicate when we can’t do ti face-to-face, really. It says “i’m here to support you. I can’t give you a hug, bug here’s my rainbow.’”

No one should think teachers are on vacation, she notes.

In addition to trying to impart whatever lessons they can by the means they have left, in Storm Lake, for example, the educators are being aggressively challenged by Superintendent Stacey Cole to use the time for professional development learning and growth, utilizing web-based classes and some learning tools created by the district itself.

“One of the classes I’m taking is about how to serve refugees who are new to Iowa, so I can learn how to better support them in my classroom,” she said.

When the happy day comes when schools can unlock their doors, she thinks, some lessons will have been learned.

“I think for people in general, the best thing to come out of this is seeing the positivity in a challenge. This was a massive thing - it stopped us in our tracks. At the same time it taught us to stop, slow down, appreciate our families, jobs and communities. I hope that when we come out of this on the other side there will be one big green light to keep moving forward no matter what.”

In the meantime, educators like Langner will keep looking for ideas and new ways to communicate with students, though they know online can’t replace the real classroom.

“There’s always an equity issue with online - the reality is that not everyone is going to have the technology and the access. It’s also pretty tough to learn online. So we have to work on as many options as we can.”

With or without technology, parents can use the time together in quarantine to encourage reading, creativity, and communication.

“Maybe it’s teaching a child how to bake cookies with you, or sitting down to draw with them and talking while you do it,” Langner said. “It’s good to sometimes turn off the technology and get outdoors - go for a walk, throw a rock in the lake, just be a family.”

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