Amy Brooks stared at the same void as everyone else on the afternoon of March 13.
As schools shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Brooks wondered how she would occupy her three boys, cooped up in their Columbia home for an indefinite period. As an English teacher at Oakland Mills High School, she wondered when she might see her students again.
“I was really feeling a sense of community being put on hold,” she said. “And I was really feeling bad about that.”
But the next morning, as she taught a regularly scheduled online writing course for adults, a thought hit her: “Community doesn’t have to end just because you’re not in person.” Brooks already had a succession of interesting people lined up for a speaker series that was to have been held at Oakland Mills High. Why couldn’t they host the talks over Zoom?
She consulted her friend and neighbor, Jessica Mahajan, who had recently designed a web site for Brooks’ writing business. Three days after schools closed, Oakland Mills Online was born.
Over the ensuing three weeks, a Facebook group for the virtual learning community mushroomed from five members to more than 600.
They can begin each day with an 8 a.m. journaling session and a 9 a.m. workout featuring yoga, meditation and cardio. The day ends with a 5 p.m. book club. The sessions in between might range from an all-ages lesson on American Sign Language to a presentation by Iraqi-American activist and restaurateur Andy Shallal to puffy painting with preschoolers (adult supervision required because a microwave was involved). The busiest have drawn as many as 50 households.
“I think having that structure laid out for people has been important,” Mahajan said. "Honestly, it’s been important for us too, because it gives a structure to our day.”
Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, is among those impressed by the effort to help people make the most of staying at home.
“We’re all kind of fumbling through this … but this Oakland Mills Online, it’s a place where kids and adults are coming together around interesting topics and having great conversations," Kennedy said.
Brooks, 42, and Mahajan, 40, sensed the effort was catching on because speakers from the Oakland Mills community lined up to participate. They believe their village was the perfect setting, given that so many kids walk to school together and so many families have lived in the same homes for multiple generations.
“You’ve got a lot of connections in this community that maybe don’t exist everywhere,” Mahajan said.
With the Howard County Public School System’s online curriculum ramping up, Brooks (who previously taught at Mervo and Frederick Douglass high schools in Baltimore) has resumed her day job. But she and Mahajan expect Oakland Mills Online to roll ahead, long past the pandemic.
“My general life philosophy is to overcommit,” Brooks said with a laugh.
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