When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close last spring, it threw a lot of families into turmoil. It also changed things for organizations that work with the schools, like Henry Vilas Zoo, which hosts field trips and day camps on non-school days. When schools across Dane County decided over the summer not to reopen, zoo staff had to take a look around.
“We knew we wouldn’t have field trips, which is a big part of our fall programming,” said conservation education curator Jess Thompson. “And we also knew that with virtual school, with the continuation of virtual school, parents and families were really struggling.”
Plus, Dane County health guidelines meant the zoo would have a few relatively large buildings sitting empty. After successfully running modified summer camp programs, zoo staff thought they could help out.
The zoo had already been in talks with the Bayview Foundation, a nonprofit organization that owns and operates an affordable housing development a little over a mile away.
“(Bayview) was doing onsite childcare and virtual support for some of their residents’ kids, but they just didn’t have the space to space everybody out to be able to offer programming for all of their residents,” Thompson said. “So we worked with them and we also knew that we had some closed areas here at the Zoo that weren’t being utilized. So we took our closed indoor restaurant, and then also our closed part of our herpetarium building, what we call our Discovery Center, and turned those both into classrooms for second through fourth graders.”
So since September, the zoo has been school for about 20 students, some from Bayview and some the children of zoo staff. The Madison school district provides Chromebook laptops; Bayview provides transportation (along with some parents); Goodman Community Center provides food. Zoo education staff provide supervision in coordination with MMSD teachers.
“They have a program through their Teen Works program where they have employment for the teens making meals, and then they deliver breakfast, lunch, and snacks every single day. And they’re nice meals, they’re nice and fresh and hot. That’s been great as well,” Thompson said.
Besides providing a place to attend virtual with good wifi, the zoo offers unique opportunities not even available at regular school, especially on Wednesdays when there are no scheduled online meetings.
“They get to meet the animals. They get to do study projects on different animals,” Thompson said. “We’ve coordinated with both the Arboretum and also Dane County park. So last Wednesday they got to go snow-shoeing. We took them all snow-shoeing across the lake. They meet up with the Arboretum educator from the Arboretum who takes them to go study the water in Lake Wingra or go look under a microscope or go make art out of leaves and sticks. So some fun outdoor education that happens every week as well.”
Randall Elementary third-grader Kimmy Moua said feeding a giraffe has been a highlight. Fifth-grader Brian Anonah said he learned things about turtles that wouldn’t have come up in regular school.
“I think Zoo school is very fun and educational because you got to do school and also learn about different animals,” Anonah said. “The teachers are very amazing. And they’re really fun to play with, and they are really smart.”
Anonah said the teachers also provide emotional support in navigating what’s been a stressful time for everybody.
“I think my teachers are really nice and helpful and they can go through tough times with kids, but then they, instead of them leaving that kid sad, they’re going to bring that kid back up,” he said.
A Madison Metropolitan School District spokesman said he was unaware of any similar community collaborations to provide virtual school support like the zoo has done.
Thompson said the results have been promising.
“We’ve heard reports from teachers that kids … that weren’t showing up at all in the spring, are now showing up every single day and completing assignments and making progress,” she said. “The teachers have given us really good feedback about how the kids are connecting in with their classes in a way that they just weren’t without that extra support. We have another kid in our other classrooms that has advanced levels in her reading because she really likes reading to the animals. It’s a little less intimidating than reading to adult humans.”
She also said she hopes to continue working with Bayview in some capacity, even after life returns to relative normal.
“We’ve already started throwing a few ideas around with Bayview. We’re obviously pretty attached to these kids by this point,” she said.
Thompson said one of the best parts of the program is to see several community organizations come together to rally around kids.
“It really has been just a great community coming together, which has been pretty fun,” she said.