An art teacher for nine years, Jennifer Fitzgerald has stood before elementary and middle school students as well as summer camp classes, urging children to find their creativity.
But for the past month, a computer screen has been the Amherst Middle School teacher’s portal for reaching the minds of local youth through a free virtual class in partnership with the nonprofit Second Stage Amherst. Interacting remotely with dozens of students and their parents on Friday afternoons, the one day per week all Amherst County students learn remotely, Fitzgerald gives students ages 5 to 9 a free outlet for unleashing their artistic talents.
“We’re having the best time,” Fitzgerald said of the weekly classes held via Zoom. “It’s so fun. The kids are doing hands-on art projects with my instruction. They are using supplies most of them have around the house.”
The weekly classes, which kicked off in mid-January and conclude Feb. 26, are helpful for younger students who need hands-on activities during COVID-19. The pandemic has brought procedures such as social distancing, face masks and staggered scheduling in Amherst County’s schools that have come with many challenges.
Fitzgerald said close to 50 students are in the class. New to the virtual teaching experience, Fitzgerald said she was worried at first, but the children and families have been great to work with.
One of the first projects involved using a stapler. “They thought that was the coolest thing,” Fitzgerald said with a laugh. “They got to use mom’s stapler.”
She said the students are cheerful and eager to show their artwork on the screen; in some cases their younger siblings come up to see the production and want to join in. The more the merrier.
“It’s kind of becoming a family event,” Fitzgerald said.
“This age group is all about playing and experimenting with the materials,” Fitzgerald said.
She said the class gives the elementary students activities they can relate to and express themselves in a creative way.
“This class has brought me back to play with the kids more and be silly with them. It’s more fun for me than it has been for the kids, I think,” Fitzgerald said. “I think it’s very important for their brains to have a little bit of a break from the academic stress they’re under this year.”
Second Stage Amherst, a venue for the arts and businesses at 194 Second St. in Amherst, has more virtual cultural and educational programming in the works for 2021.
Suny Monk, the nonprofit’s president, said Second Stage had to abandon its entire programming scheduling for most of 2020, including nixing a summer theater camp, lectures, indoor concerts and movie showings.
Second Stage partnered with Amherst Glebe Arts Response Inc. to hold a handful of outdoor concerts with social distancing in 2020 and musicians have played before empty seats in the venue’s main hall during streaming of concerts.
“Virtual programming seems to be the only path right now,” Monk said.
The organization’s farmers market had its most successful year since Second Stage began its lease with Amherst County in May 2015, according to the nonprofit’s 2020 annual report. Nearly $50,000 also was invested in capital improvements for the building, a historic church that is in the process of seeking to become a national historic landmark.
The nonprofit’s revenue over expenses last year was $43,456, according to the report.
Claudia Tucker, of the Amherst County Board of Supervisors, said she is appreciative of the enthusiasm, energy, public support and good use of grant dollars Second Stage has brought to a facility previously on the brink of demolition.
“As the longest-serving member of this board, I remember when that could have been an empty parking lot,” Tucker said of the site’s positive influence. “This is truly a community effort.”
Tenant studios and offices are at full capacity at Second Stage, a day care facility in partnership with the Lynchburg nonprofit HumanKind is in the development stages and construction of a patio for the site’s coffee shop is planned this spring, according to the report.
“We’re having fun every day,” Monk said.