Before the COVID-19 pandemic, art teacher Emily Umphlett’s classroom looked much different than it does today. In a regular full day of classes, she would see more than 100 students who would share a variety of art materials kept in a big community art bucket.

But today sharing isn’t safe, and school budgets don’t have the luxury of offering each student their own cache of art supplies. Manchester’s Southern Vermont Arts Center saw a window of opportunity in the situation and a couple of weeks ago, a group of local fourth-graders started receiving free art backpacks stuffed with all kinds of supplies, thanks to the generosity of more than a dozen local organizations.

SVAC’s Art Backpacks Virtual Classroom Project is a new program that delivers art supplies and customized lessons by professional artists to struggling schools.

The program will benefit 11 local schools, including Shaftsbury Elementary School and Woodford Hollow Elementary School, where Umphlett teaches.

“It arose out of a need that we discovered from some of our local schools and particularly our art teachers,” said Anne Corso, SVAC executive director. “They were struggling to provide art supplies to their students.”

“I lost my art room because of COVID,” Umphlett said. “(And) because of the CDC guidelines, the kids can’t touch other supplies.”

In many schools, the arts are a shared venture between various teachers and their classrooms, but COVID changed that.

“My education manager said wouldn’t it be great if we could provide art supplies to our local schools,” Corso explained. “But we wanted to really develop something that was specific to SVAC, and that did more than just send off paint, paper and glue to students, to give them something with more content, more meaning.”

“We ended up developing a multi-layered series of lesson plans, along with the art supplies to accompany those, and some lesson plans for parents to do at home with their children,” Corso said.

Inside the backpacks are physical copies of lesson plans so teachers and parents can follow along, links to Zoom sessions, a copy of the book “Parker Looks Up” by Jessica and Parker Curry and a variety of watercolor pencils, brushes, glue, scissors, pastels, paper, pencils and erasers, all packaged individually in a backpack that the student gets to keep and take home when school lets out.

Moreover, the students are able to engage with professional artists and writers in virtual classes. SVAC art instructor Chalice Mitchell created a series of virtual storytellings and lesson plans with the book “Parker Looks Up.”

And Middlebury College literature professor Megan Mayhew Bergman created a writing lesson plan based on a piece of poetry by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In addition, Umphlett’s yearly self-portrait assignment was amended this year to include COVID-19 self-portraits, which students completed and will see displayed in an SVAC exhibit in March.

Umphlett participated in the program’s launch and said it’s been a great community outreach during these challenging times to connect.

“The art teachers in our district saw a big hit with the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ do we teach virtually — how do students gain materials to create their artwork? How do we reach both the remote learners and the in-school learners?” she said. “(And) arts and crafts have been a great outlet for many to help support their emotional well-being during this pandemic.”

“In this time, the arts are something that whether or not we are artists, we all have (something) in common,” Corso said. “The arts have connected humans throughout history and are cathartic and restorative. It helps us connect to each other.”

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