The spread of the new coronavirus and the widespread emergency school closures that followed have canceled, or at least stalled, the best-laid plans of school parent groups. PTOs and PTAs across the country have responded by doing what they do best: communicating with school parents, creating a sense of community, and supporting school families as they adapt to a new normal.
Getting Food and Other Goods to Families
In hard-hit Washington state, the Lafayette Elementary PTA in Seattle placed plastic bins of books, games, and food in front of the school for families to take what they need.
In Keene, N.H., the Symonds Elementary School PTA held a food drive that collected 64 boxes of food to be delivered to students who receive free or reduced-price meals at school.
The Sandy Springs (Ga.) Charter Middle School PTO came up with a different solution. The PTO asked a restaurant to save space in its parking lot where people could donate or pick up food for their families.
Some school parent groups, unable to hold events they had budgeted for, have donated the funds to organizations in their community. The Trailwood Elementary PTA in Overland Park, Kan., gave the money planned for its spring 2020 events to a fund at the Shawnee Mission Education Foundation that provides emergency assistance to families.
Supporting Health Care Workers
Several school parent groups have shown appreciation to health care workers. The Lions Park PTO in Mount Prospect, Ill., budgeted funds to buy meals at local restaurants for first responders and health care workers. Other PTOs and PTAs have made personal protective equipment (PPE) and donated it to first responders or hospitals.
In Ohio, the Maple Intermediate School PTA in North Olmsted led a community effort to make plastic face shields using 3D printers. The PTA's Makers for Medics committee raised money for 3D printing supplies and asked people with their own 3D printers to make the face shields and donate them to the cause. The PTA made a video showing how to put the face shield components together.
Another Cleveland-area group, the Solon (Ohio) PTA, provided supplies to people willing to sew fabric face masks for donation to University Hospitals. Families at Solon schools made 1,000 face masks in just a week's time.
Moving Toward Online Connection
With schools closed for weeks or months because of the coronavirus, some parent groups have focused on helping school communities feel more connected. The Roy B. Kelley PTA in Lockport, N.Y., posted videos of staff members reading stories aloud on its website and YouTube channel. The school’s music teacher has shared singalong songs for students, too. On Mondays, the PTA posted photos of student art and craft projects for Maker Monday. Fridays featured photos of students from the school for Friend Fridays.
In New Jersey, the districtwide Spotswood PTA celebrated a Virtual School Spirit Week to bring school communities together. It worked just like a regular spirit week, with a pajama day and crazy sock day, among others. Families could email photos of participating students to the PTA, post them on the PTA’s Facebook page, or post them on Instagram with a given hashtag. Each day’s winner received a prize from the mayor.
The Spotswood PTA also posted this morale-boosting message to its Facebook page: "We might not be there with you but we will always be there for you. We love and miss you."
A group of parents in Dartmouth, Mass., held a weeklong event that gave students a daily creative challenge. Challenges included building a fort, inventing something to solve a problem, and making something out of recycled materials or items found in nature. Parents emailed photos of their kids with their creations to be posted.
Keeping Traditions Alive
At many schools, parent groups had to cancel or reinvent spring traditions like graduation ceremonies and class trips. The staff and PTA at Lake Olympia Middle School in Missouri City, Texas, celebrated students completing the 8th grade with a drive-through clap out during which students received diplomas and gift bags containing school shirts.
Fifth graders at Elm Road Elementary in Mishawaka, Ind., had looked forward all year to a year-end overnight camp, which was cancelled because of the coronavirus. The Elm Road PTO worked with teachers to make a "camp in a box" and delivered them to students. The boxes included s'mores ingredients with instructions on building a solar oven to cook them in, materials for decorating a hiking stick and making friendship bracelets, a live caterpillar with information on butterfly metamorphosis, and a t-shirt from the middle school they'll attend next year.
Also included was a message to students that said in part, "The Elm Road PTO is so proud of every one of you. We wish we could say our final goodbyes as you leave elementary school behind, and enter a new world of middle school, but sometimes life has a funny way of changing our plans. Have fun on your new adventure, and please know you'll always be an Elm Road Eagle, so come back anytime to visit!"
When school resumed in the fall, some PTOs at schools that remained closed held virtual back-to-school nights. One group changed its welcome back event into a scavenger hunt families completed by car in the community, while others gave students welcome bags with school supplies, including a stress ball.
As Halloween 2020 drew near, groups changed their annual trunk or treats to drive-through events and costume or pumpkin carving contests moved online.
To boost the spirits of parents picking up their children’s belongings from Hunter Elementary in Meridian, Idaho, PTA volunteers decorated the sidewalk with messages that offered encouragement or a few laughs. A drawing of planet Earth was accompanied by the statement “We came together while the world stayed apart,” while an illustration of the school mascot, Boomer the Hawk, said “Boomer misses his hawks!”
Parent group leaders had to get creative for teacher and staff appreciation week in May. At some schools, leaders organized drive-by teacher appreciation events, where teachers were given food and gifts without exiting their cars. Other groups delivered gifts to teachers or left them inside the school building.
In Doral, Fla., volunteers from the Renaissance Middle Charter School PTC organized a drive-through teacher appreciation event. Teachers drove past handmade posters and under balloon arches, rolling down a window to receive a gift basket.
The Spring Hill Elementary PTO found a way to support teachers as they returned to their Fayetteville, Ga., school to pack up their classrooms. The group provided a bag of snacks with a note thanking the "world's best quaran-teachers," leaving the gifts at the school about a week early to minimize the risk or virus transmission. The note read: "In a time where the kids were scared, YOU provided normalcy. In a time where parents were stressed, YOU provided calm. In a time where everything was chaos, YOU provided stability. Today we say thanks to YOU."
The Bader Hillel Academy PTO in Milwaukee gave teachers a care package with items that have become highly valued during the pandemic: face masks and hand sanitizer bearing the school logo, a package of toilet paper, and gift cards. The group used a vinyl decal machine to create the school logos placed on the face masks and hand sanitizer bottles.
It wasn't the only group to include face masks in its teacher appreciation efforts. At Mount Mourne, an IB World School in Mooresville, N.C., PTSO president Anne Mautner sewed 55 face masks in the school color and applied a vinyl decal of the school logo. The note included with the gifts thanked teachers for their dedication, "even from a distance."
Rethinking and Adapting Fundraisers
School fundraisers have looked a lot different since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many fundraising vendors began offering home delivery of products so that students didn't have to deliver the products they sold to buyers. Parent groups moved auctions online and changed jogathons to virtual events, asking students to run or walk a set distance with their families rather than with a large group at their school. Groups selling spiritwear added facemasks to their offerings.
Parent group leaders came up with creative new ways to raise money, such as online trivia nights and birthday visits from the school mascot, for a fee.