Gus Bus takes its reading adventures for kids online

The Gus Bus serves Harrisonburg children — but has moved online during the age of social distancing. (File photo)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

As educational programs adapt to the changing tides of COVID-19, Harrisonburg’s traveling literacy program that serves elementary school-aged kids has also made the move online. 

The Gus Bus, which has served the Harrisonburg area since 2004, normally visits neighborhoods around the city to read to children and engage them in activities to make reading fun.   

Now, of course, social distancing prevents many of those activities. But the bus’s team of literacy specialists didn’t let the COVID-19 pandemic stop them . 

“For our Gus Bus team, it was really a struggle to realize that we can’t do the things we would normally be doing for everyone’s safety and that we have to prioritize safety right now,” said Jolynne Bartley, the assistant director of Children and Youth Services at the JMU Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services.

“While we all know that, it was still really disappointing not to be able to offer our program in its traditional format.”  

They started by creating a YouTube channel to read to students, and then used Facebook to get the word out that the Gus Bus was still reading.  The literacy specialists took home books from the bus, recorded themselves reading the stories, and uploaded them to the channel. 

YouTube was an easy way to immediately connect to kids in the city, but it was only a first step.  

They are considering how to develop more content for the YouTube channel, keeping in mind what they will hope willbe helpful for kids and families who are in need of fresh ideas for learning. 

Bartley said the team wants to reach out to Spanish speakers as well, and one specialist who speaks Spanish is also uploading videos. 

Bartley said for the Gus Bus literacy specialists, it was heartbreaking to realize they couldn’t reach children in the ways that had worked well in the past, and they knew they needed to innovate to keep kids motivated. 

They have also been checking in by phone with their regular students and parents about what else they can do to promote literacy at home. They wanted to find out what else they could be doing to help kids get excited about reading. 

“Some of the feedback we’ve gotten so far is that people have seen the videos, and they are really enjoying them,” Bartley said. “People are also interested in having more activities, so we are thinking about continuing to read stories but also posting videos that might have activities that you can do at home.”

The Gus Bus team is also taking requests – and if anyone has recommendations on books they would like to hear read, or ideas for activities they would like to see, Bartley directed them to the Facebook page to make suggestions. 

“Overall we are just really proud of our community and want to be a part of everyone’s effort to modify and adapt to our current situation, and to be as supportive of our community members as we can be,” Bartley said. 

Watch the readings:

Watch Miss Erin read “Knuckle Bunny Too” by Mo Willems 

Watch Miss Rachel read “Monster Jelly” by Claire Freedman

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