Reading competitions are just one of the ways Lancaster County students are staying engaged during the schools shutdown. 

“Hi, Manheim Central,” Tracy Fasick said as she sat in her sunroom at home, the New York Times bestselling novel “Before We Were Yours” resting on her chest.

Fasick, Manheim Central School District’s director of curriculum and instruction, was filming a video introducing a districtwide reading contest amid Pennsylvania’s two-week school shutdown sparked by the global coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re going to have a reading war and see who can read the most books during this time that were stranded indoors,” Fasick said on the video.

The contest goes like this: Students in prekindergarten and kindergarten go up against students in first grade. Second grade faces third grade and so on, until you get to 12th grade, which competes against faculty and staff.

The contest was introduced on Tuesday. By Thursday, students, faculty and staff read a combined 170 books.

It’s one of the many seemingly simple but significant efforts being made by Lancaster County schools as they try to stay connected with families and provide enrichment activities that help students stay engaged in learning.

None of the 17 county school districts are assigning their students mandatory work during the temporary shutdown, but school officials say providing fun, voluntary challenges for students to do at home with family is the least they can do.

“We’re hoping to kind of be a beacon of light during this dark situation,” Fasick said.

Another notable outreach effort from Manheim Central: daily family challenges from faculty and staff.

The first challenge, from Fasick, was for families to post online their favorite book and reading spot. The next, offered by Manheim Central High School Principal Joshua Weitzel, was to cook dinner together. Day three’s was a LEGO-building challenge from Elizabeth Bender, one of the high school’s assistant principals.

Kristie Ohlinger, a music teacher at Ephrata Middle School, is also offering daily challenges but on her Instagram account. Each day, she posts a video challenging her 930-plus followers – many of them students – to make a difference, whether it’s performing a chore, donating clothing or reaching out to someone struggling with anxiety.

“I want kids to know that they are cared for, that they are missed, and that they are loved,” Ohlinger said. “I’ve been emailing and texting a lot of teachers over the past three days and we all say the same thing, ‘We miss our kids.’ ”

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Most school districts have devoted a page on their websites for free educational resources. Activities range from coding exercises to virtual museum tours.

At Solanco, the district’s four elementary school principals are leading the charge.

“We’ve really tried to figure out how we can create something that’s meaningful for all of our families,” Quarryville Elementary Principal Rebecca Gajecki said.

Gajecki said she and the other principals have been working around the clock collecting resources, many of them from teachers, and sharing them on the site. That’s in addition to other responsibilities, like helping out with the district’s meal distribution and taking calls from needy families.

The same is being done at Columbia Borough School District, where Superintendent Tom Strickler and his administrative team have shared a plethora of free, online resources for families to work on at home.

“I think it’s important for some education to continue, because not only does it take your mind off of the current situation, it also continues to stimulate (your brain),” Strickler said.

A variety of educational providers, such as Scholastic, have offered their services for free as schools remain closed across the country. Columbia and many other school districts have taken advantage of that.

And not only do students learn – and have fun doing it – parents do, too, Strickler said.

“I just think it’s pretty awesome,” he said.

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