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A mobile program in southern West Virginia meant to bring education closer to students began this week. Mercer County Schools used federal dollars from the CARES Act and The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, (CRRSA) to put tools and teachers on buses that travel the county over three weeks.
At the Bluefield City Park just before the Virginia border in West Virginia, a yellow school bus sits in an almost empty parking lot just in front of the Yakity-Yak playground. The side of the bus features a banner that reads “Technology.”
Just to the left of the bus is a covered picnic area where about four or five teachers and a social worker greet students and parents.
The teachers have been traveling with the technology bus to provide two-hour learning sessions for students at two locations per day. There are four buses and each bus carries different teachers and materials. The technology bus includes a plastic tote holding cased tablets. There’s also snacks, a canopy, drinks and “Dash” the robot.
Montcalm Elementary School kindergarten teacher Lela Carver pulls out Dash’s box and explains the robot to a student.
The technology bus provides fun educational activities on tablets for the kids but Carver says it also could introduce them to a career path.
“It’s very important for our students to learn about technology to advance their skills,” Carver said. “More and more of the job resources are going into the technology field so we’re better preparing them for their future.”
Parents or caregivers can choose from eight stops across the county. Organizers selected locations where they hope to find more children, such as parks with playgrounds.
The program is new and developing along the way so it’s not without its growing pains. On this day, there were less than a handful of kids at the park.
“There have been some locations that haven’t been as successful,” Carver said. “We are looking into (possibilities) to try to get more kids involved. And this is the first year of it so it’s trial and error.”
Officials with Mercer Schools worked to get the word out by sharing information on the county’s social media page as well as its website. Teachers sent home flyers during earlier summer programs. Parents also received an automated call.
But for stepdad Jonathan Delida, it was a welcome surprise. He says his stepson’s mom stumbled upon the program the day before.
“She was just going to bring him to the park and just seen the bus here and just checked in on,” Delida said, “and just walked him on over here.”
Delida wanted to bring his stepson Gavin back because he could tell he enjoyed making maracas with the teachers on the music and movement bus the previous day.
“He played it all day yesterday,” Delida says with a smile. “He was shaking the maraca and whistling, making music. He done that for probably three hours after he got home.”
In addition to the technology bus and the music, other themes include engineering and math, art, drama and a writing bus.
“I thought it was really cool,” Delida said. “It’s hard finding different little activities especially being so busy all the time. So I really like the fact that they done little projects and stuff like that.”
The project is meant to provide access to learning and education that students missed during shutdowns caused by the COVID19 pandemic.
“They definitely missed out on a lot of social interaction,” Delida said. “I think anything to step up the social interaction is really good so I think it’s really good efforts. And I noticed ya’ll gave out a lot of food yesterday so there might be a lot of people who really need that. So I think that’s really good, too.”
Organizers hope to continue the mobile summer program for the next two years, depending on funding, as part of the ongoing response to the challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
During the first two days of the program, Mercer officials say that more than 152 students visited the buses.
This story is part of our summer education radio series, “Closing the COVID Gap.”
You can reach Jessica Lilly via email, email@example.com.