When schools, childcare, and other child-related facilities closed suddenly a few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, parents were left scrambling to cover their children’s needs while also working and managing their households. Almost ten months into the health crisis, in-person services continue to be strictly limited, and most students are still learning from home. Fortunately for our Washington families, many organizations quickly rallied to provide online support to families.
Initially, Kristen Masci, occupational therapist and owner of Skills on the Hill (www.SkillsontheHill.com), which provides occupational and speech therapy, saw parents assume that this situation would be of limited duration. They requested a brief break in their child’s therapy, assuming in-person services would resume shortly. Fortunately, Masci and her team foresaw the bigger picture and jumped into action preparing for online services. Currently approximately 75 percent of her services are online.
Skills on the Hill is providing assistance directly to parents in the form of webinars on topics ranging from behavioral support to helping your online learner with self-regulation and setting up home learning work stations. They have launched a YouTube channel with informational videos. When students have not been able to benefit sufficiently from online 1:1 tutoring, Skills has pivoted to providing more guidance to parents. Approximately 25 percent of their services are still in person, ranging from school services where schools are open, to social skills groups for kids on the autism spectrum to academic booster programs where kids get academic support coupled with social skills development.
Melissa Smith of HoneyBee Pediatric Therapy (www.DCHoneyBeeTherapy.com) is also looking at this situation as a chance to expand what her program can offer to parents and students. She has seen an uptick in concerns about students and young children falling behind, which she finds very concerning. “This is causing parents to feel anxious about their children, so we are working to help build parents’ feelings of competency.” Like Skills on the Hill, HoneyBee has focused on building a community outreach/service component. Smith sees the time at home as providing an opportunity to teach older teens more household skills, such as cooking, gardening, and minor repair work that they will need as they move toward independence.
Capitol Kids Speech Therapy (www.CapitolKidsTherapy.com) went to an all-virtual model when the pandemic began, only recently adding in-person services with strict screening and safety precautions. Owner Leslie Williamson-Humes shares that virtual therapy has been quite successful and may remain an option even when the current health crisis is over.
Williamson-Humes actually saw “an uptick in referrals for families who wish to address speech or language concerns that were otherwise hard to schedule around busy after-school activities. We saw an increase in school-age children whose parents are supplementing their school-based special education services with private therapy. There has also been an increase in referrals for young toddlers in the 12- to 24-month age range and for those families and children whose daycares or early childhood programs have moved online.” Williamson-Humes has provided services such as a teacher talk to address the concerns of educators who wish to know more about strategies they can share with parents as they support their youngest learners in the virtual classroom.
The therapists all agree that this has been an opportunity to connect with parents as they support their kids. As Williamson-Humes puts it, “virtual therapy has afforded us closer connections and in some cases more effective communication with parents, which I think is something that has been very beneficial.”
Academic Support – Tutors
Not surprisingly, demand for tutoring, especially in person, has increased. Jamie Klein of JK Tutoring (www.JKTutoringGroup.com) notes that most parents who contact her are “hoping that tutoring can provide their children with a positive learning experience this year and an opportunity to connect in a personal way with another human who cares deeply about their success.” While a handful of her tutors are meeting clients in person, most are online. Klein expressed shock at how well online tutoring is going, even for the youngest students. “We are most successful when we meet for less time, but more frequently,” she says. While she lost many clients when Covid first hit, she has been able to rebuild her practice to pre-Covid levels.
New tutoring group Capitol Teachers (www.CapitolTeachers.com) was in the development stage when Covid hit, but former DCPS teachers JoAnn Hill and Elisabeth Kraemer jumped into action when schools shut down. They provide individualized attention and tailored instruction based on students’ needs. While JK Tutoring is mostly online, Capitol Teachers allows families to organize their own learning pods, for which they provide the teachers. By wearing masks, working outside when possible, and doing temperature checks, they feel that these “invaluable” in-person learning opportunities are as safe as possible.
Capitol Teachers also provides after-school virtual enrichment classes, including Spanish, art, baking, coding, and music. As Hill says, “the goal of these small-group classes is to provide fun and socially interactive opportunities for children, while also providing parents with an extra hour or two to get their own work done.” She notes that kids have been thriving both academically and socially, despite the virtual environment, forming special bonds with their peers and teachers.
Music and Sports
Lessons went online without missing a beat at Music on the Hill (www.MusicontheHill.com). Since mid-March private lessons have been held on Zoom. Owner Lindy Cambell notes, “When we switched to virtual private lessons, none of us had any real idea if it would work. Now nine months in, I’m thrilled at how effective our teachers have been in the new format. Our students are still progressing musically and still get the one-on-one attention over Zoom that they got in our lesson studios.” The studio held preschool Uke-n-More classes outside in the fall and looks forward to doing so again when warmer weather comes. (In the interest of full disclosure, the author teaches flute at Music on the Hill).
Sports on the Hill has shut down most of its programming with only outdoor soccer currently in session. Registration is open for the spring season of Capitol Hill Little League (www.chlldc.org) with Covid precautions in place.
Now for the Fun Stuff – Camps
Camp providers such as Polite Piggy’s (www.PolitePiggys.com) have also jumped in to help parents in this difficult time. They are offering a robust combination of afterschool educational and recreational activities both virtually and in person. Offerings include providing an adult to facilitate playgroups, formal activities such as Power Tots Gymnastics, and tutoring groups. The in-person options are offered outdoors at venues such as Lincoln Park and Sherwood Recreation Center. Director VanNessa Duckett is also offering breakthrough parenting classes via Zoom. A certified breakthrough parenting coach, she will help parents with how to make relationships work, focusing on mapping out a solid foundation for improving communication within a family.
Busy Bees Camp (www.BusyBeesDC.com) has been operating in person “camp” since June 22 with all participants wearing masks, practicing social distancing and sanitizing, and spending as much time outdoors as possible. (In the interest of full disclosure, the author is a co-owner of Busy Bees Camp.) After a summer of typical camp activities, Busy Bees pivoted to supporting students in distance learning as well as supporting their educational, social, and emotional growth. Students attend as little as one half-week and as much as full time, depending on their families’ needs. Currently registration is open for an additional session to run through February 26 and then the situation will be reevaluated, depending on what the public schools do.
Skills on the Hill’s Masci sees this as the “silver lining” of the pandemic. “We’re getting to see kids in their home,” she says, “so that we can see what they need on a day-to-day basis. Parents who were more hands-off during in-person clinic services, are more involved now.” Busy Bees co-owner Tarsha Burns is proud of Busy Bees’ success in running a program during the pandemic. “Our families have really come together as a team to reduce risk and support our employees and our campers.”
Parents are certainly grateful that these services have been able to continue. As parent Andy McKinley says, “Skill on the Hill has always been an excellent resource, even more so during Covid.” Maya Spernoga, whose son has been attending Busy Bees since spring, calls it a “godsend.” “He learns, plays, and gets important social interaction. I don’t think we would have stayed sane through the pandemic without them!”
With the vaccine seemingly around the corner, chances are good that students will soon return to in-person school. Until then, these types of support services can help bridge the gaps in academics, therapy and socialization left by the pandemic.
A resident of Capitol Hill for over 30 years, E.V. Downey is an educational consultant, camp co-director, behavior therapist, and flute teacher. She helped her own two kids navigate the DCPS and private school system. Her son, Charlie, is at Montgomery College and her daughter, Eloise, is at Elizabeth Seton Catholic School.