Sudden statewide school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an adjustment period for parents and students across the region.

While school districts are being lenient with requirements, learning must continue at some level. Parents around the region are finding creative ways to keep their children engaged outside of the traditional classroom while tackling unprecedented challenges. Science experiments, outdoor adventures and more are now a part of local parents’ curriculum.

Cassie Pillis-Gent, a mother of two sons, ages 9 and 7, has taken the impromptu opportunity to go beyond instructional packets and focus on hands-on learning. She plans to keep her sons busy with puzzles, Legos, cooking and baking, and outdoor activities.

“They will do their assignments, but I want them to get their wiggles out,” Pillis-Gent said on Tuesday from her Roanoke home.

Brittany Turman, the mother of a pre-K student, said she is also trying to mix in unique lessons with traditional learning. Turman said she took her son for a walk around their Fincastle property on Tuesday and then made butter in a jar as a science experiment to eat with their St. Patrick’s Day dinner.

“Since my son is in preschool, there isn’t much of a ‘plan’ for learning while closed, so I got creative,” she said in a Facebook message. “My son is a mover and a shaker, with a big interest in science, so I’m trying to focus on what I know he loves, slipping in the other stuff to keep skills sharp.”

Lesley Harrop said it’s been important to let her four children take a major role in determining the daily schedule, while ensuring it’s somewhat similar to their school schedule to make the transition easier.

She’s also created learning centers throughout her Roanoke County home: a math desk, story time rug, science table and art center.

“This helps set the expectations clearly for kids, and they thrive when expectations are clear and identifiable,” she said.

Tackling pandemic challenges

The shutdown has led to unique challenges that don’t always present themselves during a scheduled break or even an unscheduled snow day. For some parents, their workload has increased during the pandemic. Others are struggling to find child care; many centers and afterschool programs also have closed down.

Turman works from home producing digital events and said her workload has increased with cancelations amid the pandemic. “Juggling the schedule is the name of the game over here,” she said. Activities like virtual yoga and Pilates have helped both mom and son remain calm.

Peg McGuire, a mother of two sons, ages 9 and 13, echoed Turman’s comments. McGuire works in public relations and marketing, so she said she’s been “slammed” handling client work to communicate the crisis. With two sons at home now in Roanoke, she’s had to go with the flow.

She said her 9-year-old interrupted a conference call to tell McGuire the family ran out of milk.

“Because to him, that was an emergency,” she said.

Pillis-Gent is a stay-at-home mom, and she recognizes her family is lucky the closure won’t take them too far out of their normal routine. But some of the usual comforts that breaks bring aren’t there now.

Usually, her sons have play dates with their friends on school breaks. Public health officials recommend people apply social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, which means increasing the physical space between people. Play dates, for now, are a thing of the past.

Social media can bridge that gap for older students and adults, but Pillis-Gent said the younger age group is uniquely affected without social media accounts.

“They are very distant from their friends,” Pillis-Gent said. “I think they get hit harder in some ways than other age groups.”

The family doesn’t leave the news on 24/7, but Pillis-Gent said they have been up front with the boys to explain what is happening and why. She also brings up positive news with them, like talking about how scientists and doctors are working hard.

The boys enjoyed talking to their teachers by phone earlier this week. “Their eyes just lit up,” she said.

Jennifer Evans is trying to stay afloat amid a slowdown in business. She’s a photographer and normally would be booked up with Easter photos.

“I can’t really take my daughter with me to take photos, and I can’t have people come here, so we’re sort of at a standstill,” Evans said.

“It’s kind of like crickets right now,” she added.

She’s trying to make the best of her situation. On Wednesday afternoon, Evans said, mother and daughter planned to bake muffins. They’ve also been doing yoga, art projects and playing outside.

Health care workers have also been widely affected.

Harrop is a community nurse and single mom, so she has been juggling working remotely and homeschooling by herself. Her job typically involves being out in the community, but she has transitioned to virtual meetings. She said the babysitting service Care.com is offering a free one-month premium membership to health care workers.

Iris Park and her husband both work in the health care field and have been adapting to ever-evolving changes. Park’s two children have been able to attend their usual day care so far.

Should the facilities close, Park’s husband can take care of them because he started to work from their Roanoke home this week, she said. Park is a community liaison for a skilled nursing facility, so she anticipates she will continue reporting to work.

“It’s always stressful with the uncertainty of the virus,” Park said.

Her family is utilizing virtual fitness and karate classes to stay active. Park also wants them to maintain “some sense of normalcy.”

Educators offer advice and resources

Wade Whitehead, a veteran teacher at Roanoke’s Crystal Spring Elementary School, has published a list of home learning ideas that has made the rounds on the internet. The idea, he said, was to give parents ideas “without necessarily using the Wild West we call the internet.”

“I feel like as soon as we buckled into triage mode, our minds went straight to, ‘How can I use the internet?’ ” Whitehead said in an interview on Tuesday.

He wanted to “engage and challenge and mystify” students, he said.

Whitehead also said that some teachers have websites, which offer additional resources. Acknowledging that “so many of our households lack internet and/or reliable devices,” Whitehead said there are still other options, like reading and completing the low-tech activities on his list.

Many Roanoke-area parents, including Harrop, McGuire, Park and Turman, belong to a Facebook group called “Roanoke MOMS survive CORONA.” It had more than 1,400 members by Wednesday morning (dads are welcome, too). Parents within the group support one another and share ideas.

Mary Catherine Tatoy, one of the administrators of the group, also runs a website called “Fun-A-Day” that has free educational resources for pre-K and elementary-aged students. Tatoy has a background in early childhood education and has taught pre-K and kindergarten. She said she has focused this week on reassuring parents.

“Remember that as parents, we are our kids’ safe place among all this confusion,” she said in an interview on Wednesday.

With a wealth of online resources out there, Tatoy said some parents might feel overwhelmed. But they don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

She suggested parents tailor activities toward their children’s interests. If a child is interested in the ocean, for example, parents can find aquarium livestreams to watch.

Safety and wellness should be parents’ top priority, Tatoy said. Parents don’t need to plan for six to eight hours of schoolwork like a normal school day, she said.

“The kids really will be OK,” she said.

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