NORWALK, Conn. — The 2020-2021 school year has looked unlike anything parents, students, and teachers have ever seen. Many students haven’t set foot in the school buildings, opting to take classes remotely. For the students that have chosen in-person learning, many haven’t seen their friends in months and have had to deal with new protective measures, like wearing masks. For teachers, trying to provide synchronous learning for both remote and in-person students has been challenging, in addition to trying to make sure their classrooms are safe for themselves and their students.
With all these challenges swirling around, Norwalk parent-teacher groups stepped in and provided activities to keep morale up, from shifting one school’s “Fun Friday” events to an emphasis on thanking teachers to another school innovating a Halloween scavenger hunt, with the excitement crossing over onto social media.
“I think it’s really important because I think so many of us students and adults alike feel isolated during this. I think there’s going to be social, emotional ramifications for years to come at all age levels,” Marvin Elementary School PTO president Jenn McMurrer said. “I think that’s why it is really, really important to do these things and to continue to focus on bringing everybody together and remind them that you’re not alone in this.”
Jodi Przybisiki, of Roton Middle School PTA, said their organization feels responsible for helping keep the community together during this time.
“Our main goal as a PTA is to keep morale as high as possible, to keep everybody feeling as connected as possible, and just keep our Roton community strong and happy,” she said.
One of their main initiatives has been helping feed food-insecure families in their community, Przybisiki said. Her daughter Samantha, a sophomore at Brien McMahon High School, has been active in helping this effort.
“We’ve been getting donations over the past few months, and it kind of started when we first went into the quarantine,” Samantha Przybisiki said. “We’ve been heading to Restaurant Depot and buying these huge boxes of fruits, vegetables, like all this stuff that regular food pantries aren’t necessarily providing at this time,” she said. “We spend around three hours packing up these boxes for 30 families, and delivering them (or) having them come and pick them up. And we’ve been keeping it up at least once or twice a month.”
She said that this effort has helped drive home for her the message of community that’s so important during a time when people are supposed to be physically distant.
“I think that as PTAs in the community, when you think of them, you think of them as dedicated to the school and dedicated to working for the students,” she said. “So when you hear, like when you’re part of, let’s say the Roton PTA, and you hear that you have a bunch of students that are really in a time of need, and you know that you have the funds and you know that you have the people who are willing to help, the first thought in your mind should be, ‘what can I do? And how can we do that?’”
Showing They Care
At the start of the school year, the Cranbury Elementary School community wanted to emphasize that they were all still connected, even with students split between remote and in-person learning, according to Mandy Whitman Singh, president of the school’s PTO.
“If you’re a virtual family, how are you going to feel connected? Or even how are you going to signal to your kids at school starting?” she said.
That’s what sparked the idea for lawn signs that read “Together We Got This.” Families could buy the signs and display them in their yards to start the year to show that they were all still together.
“It’s been really great – a lot of families still have theirs out, so when you’re driving around Cranbury, we still see them up,” she said.
At Marvin Elementary School, McMurrer said the students and their families embarked on a “thankful writing” campaign in November to show the staff members their appreciation.
“Everybody registered to write at least one letter to a staff member, and we ensured that every staff member got at least one letter, but I know that many, many of them got many, many more than that,” she said.
Jackie Skorvanek of Naramake Elementary School PTA said that they’ve really been focusing their efforts on keeping teacher and staff morale up.
“We’ve had families come in over the weekend, and we’ve written chalk messages on the sidewalks in the pathways to the school to the teachers,” she said. “We’ve decorated outside with handmade signs. We created a red carpet kind of walk with stars hanging with all their names and messages on it, homemade posters for each of their classrooms.”
Skorvanek said they’ve also used their “Fun Friday” budget to purchase sweets for the teachers, such as candy bars with a saying on them that reads “you’re the sweetest teacher ever.”
“The teachers are just phenomenal, and they’re dedicated to their profession,” she said. “When they signed up to be a teacher, I don’t think teaching in the COVID world is what they signed up for. And, they’ve still chosen to sign up and put themselves at risk in these situations to continue to provide for our kids.”
Teachers at Cranbury Elementary School received mask lanyards to start the year, as did teachers and students at Roton Middle School. Marvin Elementary School PTO provided all staff with their own branded Marvin masks and then right before the holiday break, McMurrer said that they purchased special tote bags for all staff members.
“We did another little cute tag that says: ‘Can’t mask my gratitude for you. Happy Holidays!’” she said.
Going Remote, Getting Creative
At Roton Middle School, family nights traditionally done in person have been replaced by “Zoom Kahoot” events.
“We would usually have family nights at either Sky Zone or places around town,” said Przybisiki. “Obviously we can’t do that. We tried to kind of bring them virtually without keeping the kids on the computers too much longer. But we’ve done Zoom Kahoots – Kahoots are kind of like trivia games, and it’s a big success.”
Whitman Singh said that they’ve found some inspiration from Netflix, hosting a virtual event based on “Nailed It,” a show that has amateur bakers try to replicate fancy cakes and desserts for prizes. The students and their families made “turkey-shaped cakes” ahead of Thanksgiving, all together on Zoom.
Other traditions have had to shift, such as the annual walk-a-thon at Cranbury Elementary School, which turned into a “move-a-thon,” where both remote and in-person students did five minutes of movement together each day for a week. Cranbury also turned its “trunk or treat” into a “scarecrow scavenger hunt,” where families decorated scarecrows and left a bowl of candy out for children to come safely, and enjoy some Halloween festivities, she said.
“What ended up being so nice is that even before the event, the families who were building the scarecrows, all shared pictures in our Facebook group and commented to me how much fun they had just building their scarecrow,” Whitman Singh said. “And that if it weren’t for the scarecrow scavenger hunt, you know, they probably wouldn’t have been feeling the Halloween spirit at all, because of COVID.”
At Marvin, the annual “snowflake shop” was turned into a virtual holiday party with more than 100 people joining in, including the principal and a teacher, McMurrer said.
“We pre-packaged 400 craft kits with hot cocoa and so each child got a wooden snowflake picture frame, a little bit of white paint, a paintbrush, some snowflake stickers,” she said, adding that the school’s mascot also came onto the virtual call and read a holiday story. “I think it is the most excited I have seen the kids since the pandemic started, honestly.”
In the spring, McMurrer said their goal is to try and provide more events outside to allow for safe, community interactions.
“I think we’re going to try for a Bingo Night, and when the weather gets nicer outside, our goal is to maybe get some picnic tables, outside where the kids can do a little more – whether it’s learning if the teachers would like to take them outside for classes or things like that,” she said. “We’re working on some different ideas and things and hoping that once the weather is a little warmer out and they can be outside a bit more, they can connect a little bit more on that level.”
Skorvanek said that they plan to keep up their teacher appreciation efforts for as long as needed.
“We’ve always made an extra effort to appreciate our teachers,” she said. “But we just felt that since we weren’t spending as much money as we typically would this year that we were going to take that money and we were going to put it where we felt it could best be used and that was towards our teachers.”