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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

As Social Distancing Becomes Norm, Vermonters Move Online For Support, Connection

Teacher and students
Jen Rice, courtesy
Melissa Mroz-Gaskill stands in the middle of a group hug with her students at Little Red House in Brattleboro this fall.

As physical isolation becomes the new norm, some Vermonters are finding creative ways to help themselves and others reconnect using digital means. 

We’ve all learned, very quickly, about the concept of social distancing.

As we've all started spending more time isolated at home, teachers of all kinds across the state have been learning about technology and platforms like Youtube and Zoom to try to build and create connections during challenging times.

Joanna Colwell would much rather be in her sunny yoga studio in Middlebury, looking her students in the eyes and helping them with their downward dog and sun salutation, than doing so over a video camera.

But the public health crisis brought on by the new coronavirus forced Colwell to cancel all of her in-studio classes.

Now, she is helping her students through these days of uncertainty by offering free online classes.

In one of the first videos, she encourages her students to continue with their studies.

“Let’s take a deep breath in,” she says with her eyes closed. “Ohmmmmmm……….yogas chitta vritti nirodha.”

Yoga class
Credit Winslow Colwell, courtesy
Yoga instructor Joanna Colwell used to teach her classes in her Middlebury studio. Now, she's guiding her clients from behind a web camera.

The effects of the coronavirus on our day-to-day lives have been swift and intense.

And as we all try to navigate this strange new world of social distancing, Colwell said this week that we need yoga, and each other, more than ever.

 “So much of yoga is about ethics,” Colwell said. “It’s about Ahimsa, non-harming. And so we have to see this as a part of our practice. How can we keep one another safe? And I’m hoping that it’s a way that we can stay connected to one another, as a yoga community, as we ride out these difficult few weeks.”

Aaron Chesley has been teaching music in Brattleboro for more than 20 years.

And while online teaching is nothing new, Chesley is a bit of an old school guy, and he’s never really embraced the concept.

However, these are special times.

Now, Chesley is getting up to speed on the technology required to teach remotely and setting up lessons with his students from his studio in Brattleboro.

This is definitely not the time to let the music stop, Chesley said.

“You need to know that other people are there, and music’s one of those ways to do that, you know, art in general,” he said. “You sort of get to the bottom of what we care about, what we love, you know. And I think that’s going to be a really hard thing to understand as you feel like you lose your community around you. And I think music and art has been doing that forever, sort of helping us say the things that are hard to say, you know, and we need to say a lot of those things right now.”

Man sits in chair with guitar
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Aaron Chesley has been teaching music in Brattleboro for 20 years but never moved to an online platform. With so many people practicing social distancing, Chesley is now teaching his students online.

A lot of us have questions and fears about what’s going on, and what our world will look like when this is all over. And if you’re four or five, and you can’t go in to see your friends at day care, it’s just that much more unsettling.

Melissa Mroz-Gaskill, who runs the Little Red House Early Learning Program in Brattleboro, started putting 30 minute videos up on Youtube after having to shut down due to the new coronavirus.

“I wonder why it’s so quiet,” she asks her students in her first video. “It’s because you’re not here. It’s so very quiet and so very empty. I do wish you were here, but right now we’re all at home, helping keep each other healthy.”

Just last week, Mroz-Gaskill had 16 kids running around her classroom.

She said she wanted to get the videos going right away to try to make this very upsetting period a little more normal.

“We wanted to maintain communication with our families and our children, so I think it’s all about connection,” she said. “And we don’t want to lose that during this time. It’s really important for children to feel like life is normal in these types of times. And so being able to visit with me and Jen is kind of what we’re doing to keep that connection.”

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Before all of this Little Red House had a strict no screens policy: No videos, no online games and no handheld devices. Over the past few days Mroz-Gaskill has been taking a crash course in video production and Youtube. She’s put together a pretty engaging 30 minutes of online connection for her families where she reads the kids a book, does a few math and spelling lessons, and leads them on an activity.    

“So I found a recipe, and an activity, for flour paint,” she says in the video. “Paint made out of flour.”

Like everybody else, Mroz-Gaskill has no idea when this will end, and what life will be like when it does.

She said for now, she’ll to try to connect with her kids and families online because it’s what we have.

“So it is time for me to say goodbye ‘cause I know you guys have been sitting for a long time,” she says as she closes out the lesson. “So put one arm up here and put the other arm up here, and give yourself a great big hug, and that hug is from me, and from Jen and from Lisa. Because we love you all very much and we can’t wait to be together again. And I’ll be back tomorrow if you want to watch. I love you all. Take care.”

Mroz-Gaskill said she will to try to produce a video every day until her doors are back open and her kids are once again close enough to hug.

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