Erin Saunders lounges in a chair, eating a head of broccoli before acknowledging the camera in front of her. With the green stalk in hand, she proceeds to read aloud “The Boy Who Loved Broccoli,” a children’s book by Sarah Creighton.
Reading to a camera has become the new normal for the literacy specialists at the Gus Bus — a mobile reading program in Harrisonburg. Instructors on the program’s two vehicles typically provide storytime, activities and book checkout for students at 20 stops per week in local neighborhoods, but the spread of COVID-19 has caused the road show to cancel its stops for the remaining academic year. Saunders, an early literacy specialist for the Gus Bus, said she sees this as a “unique” opportunity to interact with students in different ways.
“It’s been difficult, I think, for everybody, but I’m excited to explore options to still connect with [the children] outside of traditional classroom settings like we do on the bus,” Saunders said. “We’re doing the best we can to try to prevent any decline in literacy.”
Once local public schools decided to close in-person operations for the rest of the school year, assistant director of children and youth services at JMU Jolynne Bartley said the Gus Bus shortly followed suit. She said the team then discussed alternative educational program options to keep the children they normally see engaged in learning and connected with the program.
“Our program is all about breaking down transportation barriers and going into neighborhoods and being right outside of a child’s front door for them,” Bartley said. “Having to come to the realization that that’s not possible right now is definitely unfortunate.”
The Gus Bus soon began recording and posting read-aloud videos on Youtube. Its channel has accumulated about 580 views since posting its first four videos on March 17. Bartley said this was made possible because many publishers have temporarily alleviated copyright guidelines on their books. Although Saunders said she’s disappointed about not being able to see the kids in-person, she tries to make her videos fun and engaging for her viewers.
“I’m very heartbroken in a lot of ways,” Saunders said. “But I also feel really lucky to work at the Gus Bus and be on this team of teachers that are very supportive of each other.”
The Gus Bus Youtube channel also includes read-alouds of books written in Spanish. When Marianne Mason, an assistant professor of translation and interpreting studies at JMU, noticed that the Gus Bus was going virtual, she said she saw an opportunity for students in her Introduction to Interpretation class. Students in the class have a 10-hour community engagement requirement, and once the university transitioned to online classes, Mason realized some of her students still had hours to complete.
Mason said she reached out to Bartley shortly after, and she expressed that her students could aid in translating the English read-aloud videos and help provide captions for Spanish-speaking viewers. Mason said she thinks the Gus Bus is important for the local Latino and Hispanic communities because it helps connect those with a language barrier.
“They serve as a bridge,” Mason said. “Literacy is so important to start at the early ages, so that can make a huge difference in a child’s education, in how they succeed. They do an amazing service to the community.”
In addition to canceling its neighborhood stops, the Gus Bus had to put a halt to its after-school program at Stone Spring Elementary School for the rest of the academic year. However, Bartley said their next phase of online programming will include a weekly class over WebEx with the students they normally see at Stone Spring.
Early literacy specialist Erin Walker became an instructor for the after-school program two weeks before they had to cancel. She said she hopes the Gus Bus can help provide their students with comfort while they’re learning from home.
“We kind of hope to be a place of normalcy,” Walker said. “We just want to offer students support in this time both academically and emotionally.”
Two of the reading road show’s annual spring fundraisers, which fund academic enrichment programming, have been postponed due to the pandemic. The Gus Bus is still participating in The Great Community Give, an online fundraiser on June 24, with a goal to raise $8,000. Saunders said the program is operating under several grants, which she said the pandemic has not affected. She said the team is currently applying for more grants in preparation for the next school year.
Bartley said despite the challenges they’re facing, it’s comforting to know that other nonprofits in the community are experiencing the same thing.
“The beautiful thing about the Gus Bus team is that they are an extremely caring, creative and innovative group of people who are super invested in the students they work with regularly,” Bartley said. “I think that we have been able to really keep positive attitudes even though it’s something that is really difficult for the program to be going through.”
Contact Kamryn Koch at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.