How the Auxiliary Programs Department Helped Save Summer (and More)

Things were looking good for enrollment for 2020’s Sidwell Summer, the School’s seasonal programming.

“We launch enrollment in December, and on March 15, we were on record to have a banner year,” says Karen McCann McClelland, the director of Auxiliary Programs at Sidwell Friends. “The we got stopped in our tracks.”

The pandemic didn’t just affect summer activities. Suddenly, everything the Auxiliary Programs department handles went up in the air—early morning care, aftercare, the Special Programs After Regular Classes (SPARC) enrichment program, the Fox Den. Everything had to be reinvented for a virtual world.

“I took that as a challenge,” McClelland says. “Our team looked at the situation and said, ‘Okay, what are the challenges for the Lower, Middle, and Upper School?’”

The first challenge was adapting programming for the end of the 2019/20 academic year. All of the SPARC enrichment programs went online, as did aftercare. The team then created the “Lunch Bunch,” which offered Lower Schoolers a chance to get in some much-needed casual socialization and conversation. But summer still loomed: The School needed more and different activities, which meant developing programs, finding counselors, and making it all happen fast. Help came from a somewhat surprising section of the Sidwell Friends community—one that also needed some help.

“There were Upper School kids who couldn’t do their service learning, and the summer is when a lot of them get that done,” McClelland says. “So we allowed them to do service learning by mentoring and working with Lower and Middle School students.” The Upper Schoolers were asked to tap into their own interests and create interesting sessions for Lower and Middle Schoolers. Eventually, there were dozens of programs; to say they were varied is an understatement.

“We did yoga. We did mindfulness. We did soccer,” McClelland says. “We did virtual field trips to zoos, and they’d talk about the animals. We did book clubs, art activities, scavenger hunts. The Environmental Club did a whole environmental week.” As a result, younger students were entertained and engaged, and the Upper School students collectively earned more than 850 hours of service learning.

But the challenge was far from over. After the summer came the opening of School. Many faculty and staff members faced the same problem as other working parents across the country: balancing working from home with caring for children or helping them attend virtual classes. How could these Sidwell Friends employees teach and work online while still supporting their children’s distance learning?

“We did a lot of town halls with employees who have kids, and what they needed was childcare, and in particular, school-aged childcare,” McClelland says. “We were tasked with making that happen. So, we got the Early Childhood Learning Center opened up in mid-August. The school-aged childcare opened up right after Labor Day.”

That meant school-aged children of Sidwell Friends faculty and staff—regardless of whether those children attend the School or not—could attend supervised learning sessions four days a week in a safe setting and in small, socially distanced cohorts. They could also participate in non-academic enrichment activities, including painting pumpkins around Halloween. In addition, when the School as a whole moved to hybrid learning, the Auxiliary Programs department was on the ground, handling pickups and dropoffs, subbing in for faculty, and delivering lunches.

Not content to solely support the School community in social and academic ways, the department also looked to the Fox Den. They retrofitted the coffee shop with plexiglass and other safety measures as Upper Schoolers returned to campus for hybrid learning. But what to do with all of the Fox Den’s Sidwell swag? The team opened a virtual storefront online and hosted pop-up shops in the Wisconsin Avenue parking garage during students’ school-supply pick-ups.

“We did some December pop-ups where people could sign up for a shopping slot, have an individually wrapped cookie and a hot chocolate, and get to shop for 30 minutes,” McClelland says. “Families want that; they want to feel the connection with the School. And I think it makes them feel a little bit normal to be able to buy a sweatshirt.”

The School moved back into distance learning after Thanksgiving and, depending on circumstances, will go back into hybrid learning in January. These changes no longer faze the Auxiliary Programs department. McClelland and her team are ready to roll with whatever punches COVID throws at them.

“Hopefully all the divisions know that we’re here to help support the School,” McClelland says. “We’ve got a pretty entrepreneurial staff who’s willing to think outside of the box.”

Now, with vaccines coming into play, what Sidwell Summer 2021 will look like is still up in the air. Whatever happens, the Auxiliary Department is ready to educate, enrich, and, especially, play.

“The magic of camp is that it’s not always the content,” she says. “Whereas parents were often looking for that next specialty camp, some simple programs and just letting campers play and be outside are so important. We do great programming, but we also might offer something simpler in the future. Maybe this summer, maybe for a couple of years—maybe forever.”

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