The closure of Virginia schools due to COVID-19 has left many McLean families wondering how to educate and entertain their children while confined to their homes. McLean mom and Art Specialist Pamela Saunders knows the confusion and frustration parents are feeling firsthand. "We just want the best for our children," Saunders said. "How can I offer my children comfort and stability during this time?" But when she refers to her children, she is talking about more than just her own two kids. She is also talking about the 160 preschool through sixth grade children she teaches weekly at Brooksfield School, Chesterbrook, Franklin Sherman and Kent Gardens through her program Young at Art.
"I immediately thought of my students – the ones who were in the middle of a clay project, the ones who hadn't finished their squirrel collages, the unfinished work that they were so invested in. I had to think of something."
The day after the closures, Saunders had already set up online learning and didn't skip a beat. "Technology and I don't always get along," she said with a smile, "but I had to model what I teach – to think creatively and find a way. When FCPS closed on Friday morning, I went straight to work. I had never done a video conference before. By Friday afternoon, I was painting irises with 20 students from Chesterbrook Elementary School."
Parents emailed her with thanks and gratitude. "I can't thank you enough," wrote one parent. Another said, "Today's class was a bright spot for our household." Saunders realized after dozens of emails and messages that there was a common theme – the children were finding joy in creating art and connecting with their classmates as a way to feel normalcy. "It made my children feel normal to attend your art class with their friends." That's when "Miss Pam," as students affectionately call her, launched a series of free online classes, available to anyone.
Saunders hopes to connect the community through art. The following Monday (the day FCPS schools had scheduled the emergency staff meeting), the passionate art teacher had already jumped on an idea. "I had an idea to post daily art prompts on my YoungatArtClassesForKids Facebook page. Aligned with the ubiquitous, colorful "Coronavirus Daily Schedule" she saw on the internet, she posts daily challenges at 11 a.m. during the calendars “creativity time.” Artists from McLean and beyond participate in the prompt and post their creations on the facebook page. "People want to connect, and do something fun and meaningful. When they spend time doing things like building a robot out of recycled materials or drawing a person with a garden growing from their head, it is a diversion, but also a way to connect when we all feel a little disconnected." Artists post their art on her page which Saunders likens to an online art show.
The news that schools would remain closed for the remainder of the year was devastating to her students, who had already signed up for her Spring offerings "Favorites with a Twist," a series of classes in which children ages K-4 would create original art inspired by famous artists with their own twist. Another round of emails came with the announcement, parents asking about online classes, but Saunders had already anticipated this. "I have weekly online classes, and even an online Spring Break Camp. I ordered in bulk all of my most successful tools and materials and am making a curated box of art supplies for each "camper." Saunders will also continue to offer her Art Clubs online as well as her free classes to anyone who would like to join.
"I've always been a person with rose colored glasses, optimistic and hopeful. I truly adore my students and the communities where I teach, and want to bring a sense of joy and calm through my art classes not only to them, but anyone who needs it. This is a time for us to come together and give the best of what we have. And when I see people signing up for my classes and supporting my small business, I am so grateful."
To participate in the Young at Art daily challenges, visit YoungatArtClassesForKids. The full listing of free classes, Art Clubs and Lessons can be found at https://youngatart.corsizio.com