The pandemic caught families and school systems by surprise last spring, forcing kids to attend class by computer screen. Kitchen islands, dining tables and other surfaces were pressed into service for the task, but the dawning realization that virtual learning would continue this fall forced many families to come up with strategies that would enable students to stay focused and productive in the new school year. “Parents are scrambling, turning every nook and cranny in the house into work space,” says Bethesda designer Liz Levin. We spoke to Levin and two other local families about their solutions to make school days seamless for their kids at home.
Thirteen-year-old Julia Levin started spending a lot more time in her room once the shutdown began—and started to reconsider the flowery wallpaper and lavender color scheme her mom had designed when she was 4. “That’s when she started lobbying me to redo her room. She said it was too babyish,” her mom, Liz Levin, says. She knew Julia was serious when she approached her mom’s contractor (and neighbor) to trade dog-walking services for his help in removing the wallpaper and painting her room white.
The ensuing project, which was completed in September just as seventh grade was beginning virtually for St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in D.C., was an excuse to reorganize the room’s built-in shelving, desk and window seats to enable the new home-school environment. “We just got rid of a lot of stuff in
Her room and mostly put books on the shelves,” Levin says of replacing the play castle and little-girl trinkets that once lived under and around the desk.
Julia developed her teen-room taste from watching TikTok videos, so she was motivated to create a screen-friendly backdrop for both classroom Zoom sessions and social-media streaming. Red thunderbolt stickers dot the walls and LED strip lighting frames her closet doors, which Julia painted in a black-and-white cowhide pattern to match her phone case. Rounding it out is a collage of magazine pictures that surrounds a red neon thunderbolt and pink letter J. And though such design elements aren’t imperative for learning from home, Liz says, “it was a nice opportunity for self-expression and for her to feel ownership of her space, where she’ll spend a lot of time.”
Just In Time
The Gleason family moved into their newly built Bethesda home in the summer of 2019, and once the pandemic had kept them there for six months, they realized the home’s design would work better than anyone had anticipated. While Megan and Lawrence Gleason work from their respective home offices, their son, Cooper, 14, and daughter, Mackenzie, 11, attend school from their bedrooms, where each has a wall of built-ins that includes a desk, shelving and lots of storage. A loft off the upstairs hall, once intended for the kids to host friends, now provides break time between classes.
“Down to the art, every accessory and fabric—every little detail was thought out to create the mood they wanted to feel in each space,” says North Bethesda designer Arlene Penrose. The Gleasons, who worked with GTM Architects’ Mark Kaufman and Sandy Spring Builders, requested that each child’s bedroom have “a desk and a place to sit, with plenty of natural light and views of the trees,” Megan says.
Penrose took design cues from the kids as she decorated their bedrooms, and their choices have provided surprisingly good Zoom backgrounds. Cooper, a ninth grader at Landon School in Bethesda, attends class with rustic wood paneling on the wall behind him. Mackenzie, a sixth grader at Washington International School in D.C., wanted a crystal chandelier in her room; that and a golden M over her bed can be seen as her video backdrop. They also have study options other than their desks: Cooper has a massive Lovesac beanbag in the corner of his room, while Mackenzie has a large window seat with a plush cushion the size of a twin mattress. “What I like about my room is that you can do a bunch of things in it,” Mackenzie says. That’s important since her bedroom has to fulfill so many different roles in this new era.
Penrose planned for pop-up outlets on the kids’ desk surfaces to charge laptops and phones, as well as slim drawers to hold the devices when not in use. The Gleasons also requested a dedicated arts-and-crafts room in the basement, since they’d been using an exercise room for that purpose in their old house. Now it’s perfectly set up for art and science assignments during the kids’ virtual school day. “We’re very grateful to be in such an amazing place for this,” Megan says.
Space for Everyone
As a mother of four, Chevy Chase designer Sarah Hayes knows how important it is to keep children moving. When it became clear that her kids—twins Ella and Genna, 15; Lilly, 12; and Burke, 10—would be learning from home this fall, she knew they’d need more than one place to study. “I want them to be able to move around. I don’t want them to be in any one space all day long,” she says. Hayes found that an existing basement area for games and crafts easily transitioned into an alternative study space for her kids, who cycle through at different points during the day. Metal chairs around a simple white Parsons table can stand up to the kids’ comings and goings, while a corner lined in bookshelves ensures that books and other supplies are at the ready.
Hayes is also helping her kids transform their work spaces upstairs. Luckily, a 2014 home addition gave them their own wing, including a suite for the twins that’s big enough for each to have her own desk. Now that they’ve begun 10th grade at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in D.C., they’re contemplating a switch from the “fun, beachy” turquoise-and-pink palette they chose as 9-year-olds into something more calming and neutral. “They want it to have less zing and more Zen,” Hayes says. But some things won’t change. With organization always on her mind, Hayes uses bar carts for nightstands that can hold supplies and roll up to a desk. Storage benches at the feet of the twins’ beds also contain books and other necessities.
Lilly, a seventh grader at The Woods Academy in Bethesda, and Burke, who’s in fourth grade at Bethesda’s Mater Dei School, have changed environments as well. Hayes had upholstered Lilly’s wall with pink floral fabric during the renovation, and now it serves as a bulletin board behind her desk where she pins postcards, birthday cards and pictures of her friends. Like her sisters, she has a bar cart that serves as both a nightstand and book caddy. Hayes also helped her convert a small dormer closet into a school locker of sorts, with a dry-erase board, decorative stickers and locker shelves inside.
Burke never had a desk in his room, so Hayes created a corner for him in the family room. Because it’s in such a public area she didn’t want a formal desk, so she purchased a small card table and a storage cart for supplies that slides underneath. She throws a pretty tablecloth over it when her son’s not working so it’s all out of sight—“that’s for my own peace of mind, my own sanity,” she says. “At night, it’s just a table with a tablecloth underneath a painting in the family room.”
Jennifer Sergent is an independent design writer and blogger. She’s the founder of the DC by Design blog, which has covered design talent throughout the D.C. region since 2010. You can read her blog and other work at jennifersergent.com.