By Bob Uphues
Group learning is an essential part of the experience at Ms. Clara's Joyful Learning Center, a kinder-music school for children ranging in age from infants to 5 years old, founded nine years ago in Brookfield by Clara D'Onofrio.
As last week dawned, D'Onofrio was faced with her business model in crisis. With the state quickly moving toward a stay-at-home order, she shut down classes at her storefront at 9213 Broadway Ave. in the interest of safety.
D'Onofrio had never seriously considered delivering her classes virtually before, but now that was going to change.
"It always seemed unattainable, and my biggest hesitation was that it had to be perfect," D'Onofrio said in a phone interview last week. "Once this [COVID-19 pandemic] happened, I thought, "I have to get something out there.'"
"All I needed to do was figure out the camera angles," she said. "It felt very Mr. Rogers."
Between both of them, the videos were viewed 7,600 times and reached an international audience.
"I had comments from France," D'Onofrio said.
The next day, she sent a video to parents of her students announcing a new way of delivering lessons. They'd still be held at their scheduled times and they'd still feature the kind of personal interaction between students and teachers. But they'd be delivered using the video conferencing app Zoom, and kids could watch their lessons at home on the devices and TVs.
"My classes are so playful and they're things parents and kids are really looking forward to, especially young parents who are really needing anything to occupy the little ones' time," D'Onofrio said.
And for parents of older kids, the classes are a time when they can comfortably get a break.
Those classes are only for the kids who are enrolled, but D'Onofrio will continue to do Facebook Live sessions for anyone who wants to participate every Monday, for the time being.
The experience has also led D'Onofrio to expand Ms. Clara's Joyful Learning Center's virtual offerings. D'Onofrio told the Landmark she's partnering with Care.com, a website that connects families and caregivers, to deliver classes to a wider audience.
While Ms. Clara's will continue to deliver her normal roster of classes to small groups of students, whose families can access them at their appointed times via a link in Zoom, Care.com will allow D'Onofrio to allow people from anywhere to access classes. Some may be limited to 20 or fewer students, while others might be open to a greater number of kids at a lower cost.
Another Brookfield music-centric business forced to improvise was A Sound Education, which not only sells and repairs instruments and gear but offers music lessons at its storefront at 9433 Ogden Ave.
"It's flipped upside down," said Patrick Sheridan, who has operated A Sound Education with his business partner, and brother-in-law, Mike Doerr for 19 years.
The business' music students vary widely in both age and proficiency, so the loss of in-person lessons last week forced a change. Early last week, A Sound Education moved its music lessons to a virtual platform, so their 25 teachers would continue to have a source of income and students could continue to hone their musical skills.
And while the week got off to a slow start, with about 15 people out of the normal 70 getting their lesson virtually on March 16, by midweek those numbers began to rebound to about 50.
"We're hoping to be 100-percent digital for the next few weeks," said Sheridan. "It's such a nice option for us, because we're not totally out of business. … It might not be ideal, but it'll help us make it to the other side."
The virtual option likely will survive once the state-mandated business shutdown is lifted.
"I think so," said Sheridan. "We're going to take one of the rooms and outfit it with multiple cameras and angles. If students are ill, you could assign videos of what to do when they're feeling better."
Pre-recorded virtual lessons would also help A Sound Education maintain contact with college-age students, whom they often lose touch with after they graduate from high school.
"That way they can have lessons while they're away at school," Sheridan said. "That's a good option."