A lot of people are taking their work home right now as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced businesses into embracing telecommuting.
But for Bernalillo County Urban 4-H agent Brittany Sonntag, taking work home was much more involved than just setting up a computer on the kitchen table.
When the state announced that public schools would shut down to help slow down the spread of the coronavirus, Sonntag and two co-workers had to evacuate about 60 incubating eggs and 15 chicks from more than a dozen classrooms across the county that 4-H was partnering with.
“They would’ve hatched while the schools were closed,” Sonntag said of the eggs, which were donated by a local farmer.
Some of the chicks ended up living in Sonntag’s bathroom since nonessential businesses – including the 4-H office – also closed.
The chicks and eggs were in elementary classrooms as part of a program the local 4-H office runs each spring to teach kids about incubation and to aid in other core content lessons.
“We use the chickens a lot in education,” Sonntag said. “We do a lot of math and journaling with the chickens.”
4-H, which began as an agricultural organization and has broadened into other life skills development, will often work with schools for projects such as this.
Sonntag said teachers will incorporate the little poultry classmates into daily lessons, and students are encouraged to read out loud to them.
While the chicks and the unhatched siblings can stay in the classroom during a normal week, they shouldn’t be left alone for longer than one night. That’s because the chicks can’t stay in the incubator for long after they hatch. Also, they can be rascals when left alone.
“They can’t even be left alone over a weekend. We usually pick them up on Fridays because we don’t want them to be left alone,” she said. “They will do things like dump their water or dump their food. They really shouldn’t go more than a night without somebody being there with them because they tend to get into trouble.”
So, when the coronavirus hit New Mexico and schools prepared to close, Sonntag had roughly a day to figure out how she was going to transport the animals out of the 15 classrooms.
On March 13, the last day schools were open, Sonntag and her coworkers drove across the county – from the South Valley to Los Ranchos and elsewhere – to liberate the critters.
Transporting eggs and the little chicks isn’t as easy as putting them in a carton or buckling them in.
Sonntag had to keep the incubators hooked up to a power source in her vehicle, drive them safely to the office and later transport them to her home in the South Valley.
To keep the incubators running while in transit, she said, the crew found an adapter that plugged into the vehicle’s cigarette lighter.
It was a frantic and even risky move.
“It’s not healthy for the chicks to be moved once they are in the incubator … It really puts a lot of strain on the chicks,” she said. “It was very nerve-wracking.”
She said the 4-H team tried to stay light-hearted about it all and see the humor in a chick rescue mission amid a pandemic.
Originally, Sonntag thought she was temporarily fostering the baby chickens because students were tentatively scheduled to go back to school April 6. But then the state ordered schools closed for the rest of the academic year.
That’s how Sonntag became the housemate to 26 chickens – with names including Cluck Norris and McFeathers – at one point.
“Thankfully, I live in the South Valley. So I do have a little two-acre farm, and I happen to have an extra bathroom,” she said, adding that they lived in her spare bathroom in big plastic tubs for the first bit of their lives.
“Other than them being a little smelly, you just kind of get used to them,” she said with a laugh.
As of Thursday, she had 17 chicks from the classroom programs living with her. They had just hatched on Monday and Tuesday.
“I check on them a couple of times a day, socialize with them and interact with them,” she said.
Sonntag has been giving the school chicks back in batches to the farmer who donated them.
Despite the stress of the evacuation, Sonntag said looking back on it, the hardest part of it all is knowing the kids won’t get to interact with the fun fowl.
“This has definitely been the first time we have ever had to go and take so many chickens in so many different stages of incubation, and that was definitely stressful,” she said. “… I’m more just disappointed for the kids who are missing out on this experience.”