The coronavirus pandemic changed how many parent groups run fall events, so we reached out to leaders in our PTO and PTA Leaders & Volunteers Facebook group to see how they've given their fall festival and trunk or treat events some socially distant and virtual twists.
Contributors in the Facebook group say they‘re reconfiguring their haunted houses and trunk or treat nights, turning their traditional walk-through Halloween events into socially distanced drive-through versions.
Leah Pisano had no problem coming up with ideas that follow her Beaver Falls, Penn., district’s social distance guidelines for her parent group’s fall event.
“I envisioned a contactless ‘Boo Thru’ with lots of trunks decorated with different themes, a section with a DJ and dancing witches and skeletons (line dances, popular TikTok dances), lighted archways, lots of props and haunted scenes, carved pumpkins, and decorated bales of hay,” says the vice president of the Blackhawk Intermediate PTO. “One big bag will be given to each child at the end that is full of treats and giveaways, handed by a volunteer wearing PPE.”
Another drive-through idea is to hold a “parade or treat” event. During a parade or treat, parent group members and teachers decorate their vehicles in a theme and drive past students’ houses, tossing candy or other treats to kids in their yards. You could invite families to vote on their favorite "car costume" or recruit a panel of judges from the community to choose winners.
Like the graduation and teacher appreciation parades last spring, these are easier for schools in smaller geographic areas to pull off in a shorter time frame.
The size of a drive-through trunk or treat or haunted house event depend on budget, the number of volunteers who would hand out candy and keep traffic moving, and the amount of space needed for parked cars and a drive-through lane.
Tips for pulling off a drive-through event:
Have parents sign up for time slots to keep the line under control and prevent traffic jams.
Rent or borrow tents, which will protect costumed volunteers, props, and decorations from the elements (you can also see if any party rental companies would donate them).
Shop for decorations in October, when fabric and craft stores begin marking down prices a few weeks before Halloween.
Minimize handling of food or candy given to students by making treat bags or handing out prepackaged snacks decorated as mummies, ghosts, or jack-o'-lanterns.
Virtual Costume Contests
Part of the fun of fall events is seeing the kids in their costumes, whether they’re wearing Halloween or favorite character outfits. That can still happen with some creative planning.
Many leaders are planning to set up fall-theme display areas at their events and have costumed kids come up one at a time to have their photos taken. Leaders will share the pictures on their group’s social media channels for everyone to see and vote on.
For groups that can’t hold events due to district restrictions, contests can still happen. Ask parents of at-home learners to share photos of their child’s costume on social channels, or hold a Zoom or Google Meet costume contest where students dress to impress. Add some kid-friendly music and encourage kids to show off their dance moves to turn the event into a virtual dance party and costume contest.
Tips for pulling off a costume contest:
Set rules about acceptable costumes well ahead of your event. Clearly say what is and isn’t allowed.
Decide who will vote. Some groups choose a committee of teachers to vote, while others let the entire school community choose winners.
Decide how they’ll vote. The teachers may vote behind the scenes and announce the winner later that night or the next morning. Group votes could be a show of hands on a Zoom call or via a Facebook poll by a certain deadline.
Face Mask Decorating
For a fun twist on costumes, hold a face mask decorating contest this year. Award prizes to “most creative,” “spookiest,” “funniest,” “most imaginative,” and more.
Tips to decorating face masks:
Set guidelines to keep the decorations like sequins, feathers, or foam shapes from interfering with breathability and the effectiveness of the face mask itself.
Set rules for acceptable and unacceptable decorations or themes.
Decide who will vote on winners and how they’ll vote (see virtual costume contests tips above).
Scarecrow Decorating Contest
When Yorktown (Va.) Elementary Magnet School PTA president Ashley Smith and treasurer Shannon Taber had to postpone their Monster Mash Dance this fall, they instead came up with a scarecrow decorating contest. Students will create and decorate their scarecrow and display it in their front yard for one week. The PTA will provide a map of contest entries so families can drive by and enjoy the creations. One scarecrow will be chosen for a special prize.
Tips for creative scarecrow contests:
Encourage families to make scarecrows from found objects. If purchased scarecrows are acceptable, check with local craft stores for discounts.
Create social media buzz and post a “scarecrow of the day.”
Consider giving prizes to winners in each grade.
Pumpkin Painting and Decorating
A mainstay of fall festivals everywhere, pumpkin decorating is getting an update this year, too. While kids still paint their favorite book character or jack-o’-lantern designs onto real or foam gourds, this year’s events will most likely take place on virtual platforms.
Parents submit photos, and either a committee votes for winners or all school families can vote online via Facebook poll or Instagram comments for example.
Tips for perfect pumpkin decorating events:
Make sure the videoconference platform you’re using offers a package large enough to let your entire student population participate. For example, many platforms limit attendees to 300 people.
Partner with a local pumpkin patch to get free or discounted real gourds, or bulk order foam pumpkins from a discount distributor.
Distribute real or foam pumpkins to parents at a set drive-through time.
Share Halloween craft and game ideas with families and encourage them to try out a few—like Halloween bingo or a slime-filled jack-o'-lantern—while waiting for judges to choose the winning pumpkin carvers.
Not-so-Spooky Story Night
The Kennydale Elementary PTA in Renton, Wash., planned a virtual version of its popular fall reading event. In past years, the group partnered with the school librarian to find Halloween-theme poetry for students to read in front of an audience. Student readers wore their costumes and performed their poems, and then went trick-or-treating at family-sponsored tables set up around the school gym and common area.
For this year’s virtual version, president Bethany Potter says the PTA will ask participating kids “to record themselves reading a poem or short story and submitting it for review by a team of parents for ‘appropriate messaging’ of their performance. We will have three ‘acts’ of the presentation of the recorded shorts and then balance it out with a volunteer or teacher reading a story or leading them in a song. There will also be a song and dance where we will turn on cameras of those students who want to share their costumes with the group.”
As for the trick-or-treating portion at the end, committee cochairs Elayna Ferguson, past president and current secretary, and Michelle Rauschenberg, membership vice president, are considering a fun food craft like popcorn balls or cereal treats that are easy and inexpensive for families to make.
Tips for a virtual reading night:
Get input from your school librarian. She’ll know what’s age-appropriate and fits the season.
Consider using Zoom’s webinar tool for larger events to reduce participants coming on and off mute and causing distractions.
Ask the kids to practice reading their poems and stories a few times before recording themselves.
Fall Scavenger Hunts
The Coronado Elementary PTO in Gilbert, Ariz., is changing up its traditional fall festival and planning a Fall Questival, which is a scavenger hunt that families will do together in their cars.
Families will be divided into groups, and each group will have a race coordinator. The families will fill out a bingo-style card with photo submissions of specific landmarks and certain businesses around town. The school mascot will make surprise appearances at some locations, adding to the challenge.
When families complete the scavenger hunt card, they “win raffle tickets for a virtual raffle at the end of the night,” says Brooke Ewing, PTO president. “We’re just doing all we can to bring families together, those who chose to learn from home and those who are going back.”
Tips for fun scavenger hunts:
Include historical and meaningful locations around your town.
Keep costs low and send scavenger hunt cards out virtually. Ask families to submit their photos via social media or text messaging to enter the prize drawing.
Raffle prizes can include a gift basket filled with goods from local shops, gift cards to local restaurants or attractions, or school spiritwear.
Fall Flower Sale
The Eagle Elementary PTO held a fall flower sale to kick off its new school year colorfully. Teaming up with a local Selkirk, N.Y., nursery, the PTO presold tickets for a planter, hanging basket, and bushel basket-style planter of homegrown mums. Parents picked up the flowers at the nursery during a three-day period. The PTO paired the mum sale with a free back-to-school drive-in movie night for in-person students.
Tips for fall flower sales:
Source flowers from a nearby nursery and support a local small business.
Set up easy payment methods for parents of in-school and at-home learners.
Offer varying days and times for flower pickup to accommodate parent work schedules.
More Ideas From Readers
Hold a fall or Halloween yard decoration contest.
Ask a teacher to lead an online art or drawing lesson to help families create fall-related artworks.
Sponsor a Halloween-theme kids' bake-off, with kids baking at home and sharing photos of their creations.