What AART is Learning From the Coronavirus

April 15, 2020

By: Michelle Sullivan, Executive Director

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a humbling experience for our organization. We have had to shift and adapt our program in the span of just a few short weeks – something that is not easy in the best of times.

AART’s educational model focuses on individualized learning – meeting students where they are. We do not use a standard curriculum, but we do have metrics that we measure improvement in key areas. This allows teachers to vary their teaching styles to better address the needs of their students, while still focusing on developing language/literacy, social classroom behavior, cognitive, and fine motor skills.

Student practicing writing at home.
AART student practicing writing at home.

We are very focused on preserving the integrity of our program or “walking in our purpose”, while at the same time adapting to meet our new reality. This is a delicate balance that takes a team effort and I believe we have been extremely successful because of the creativity, support, and dedication of our entire teaching staff working with one purpose in mind – to educate each of our students to the best of their abilities in the home environment.

It has been one month since we suspended our in-person classes and a number of lessons have been learned from this pandemic. Today, I wanted to share with you the biggest lesson we’ve learned thus far: being responsive and agile is key to early success.

Staff creating packets for students.
Staff creating packets for students.

On March 12th, we suspended our classes in accordance with the cancellation of instruction at Loudoun County Public Schools. The very next day, our team was assembling academic activity packets for our students to continue learning at home.

Since that day, our teaching team has been employing technology solutions to connect with their students to continue the learning at home. You can see some of the fantastic examples in this post of what teachers are doing – everything from reading to their students to find creative ways to teach them about the five senses.

The success of our program is built on trust and establishing solid relationships with the children and families early on. Our students connect deeply with their classmates, teaching staff, and volunteers within the first few weeks of class. Because of these personal connections, the students are building their social and emotional skills as well as gaining a sense of independence and familiarity with a structured classroom environment.

Student showing the drawing he completed.
Student showing the drawing he completed.

Since this foundation was well-established with the current 2019-2020 class of students, the shift to a virtual, flexible model was much easier than we assumed. For our team, the agility came in the form of technology challenges with a digital divide experienced by most of our AART families. First, our teachers needed to establish that families had internet and wifi connectivity and second, they needed to confirm the students would have access to a device to access digital material. Once that was established, it was determined that almost all students would be using a borrowed cell phone for any digital connection to the teachers.

Teacher assistant demonstrating the sense of smell.
Teacher assistant demonstrating the sense of smell.

What proved to be successful was how the staff used this knowledge to reach our students. They piloted the use of apps that families could download and use for free, including Marco Polo and WhatsApp, to watch and create videos with their teacher. The teachers also discovered that most students do not have their own learning space equipped with supplies and resources to successfully work from home. This information was power and inspired creativity and thought.

So what does all this mean for our program moving forward? At this time, we are continuing to monitor the situation and have some tough decisions ahead. We intend to complete our current 2019-2020 school year program virtually, which means our students will not have their in-person graduation. As for our in-person summer classes – we must consider our students, staff, and volunteer’s health while at the same time balancing the feasibility of opening classes in our schools or
community centers.

We know we need to take our lessons learned to finetune our program to respond to the anticipated need we expect to see in our 2020-2021 program as a second wave of job loss is currently unfolding in the United States. For now, all of us at AART will #KeepLearning as #COVIDCantStopGood.



Watch Ms. Sally read The Family Book by Todd Parr to her students.