Inside the quarantine: Online everything

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Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories Jen Cowart wrote regarding her family’s experience during the two-week self-quarantine period for the Cranston High School West community.

Week 2: March 21-28

As we moved into the second week of our kids’ quarantine and of our own time spent at home when we were not at work, life around us was changing quickly as each day brought on new closures and announcements for our state and our city.

Restaurants were closed other than for takeout. Small businesses, salons, the interior stores at the mall, recreational spaces – all were closing. Grocery stores were still out of stock, but as time went on I noticed less cars in the parking lots and less people in the aisles as more people were staying home more often and the initial first days of panic shopping had passed.

Our state’s number of cases of the virus rose by the day, sometimes doubling, sometimes going up by a lot more than double. Massachusetts announced its first death and then several more after that, and the news out of New York got scarier each day. I found myself very tuned in to our governor’s daily updates, listening for the numbers, the amount of males and females and their age ranges, eventually beginning to take notes each day just for myself, my reporter mode kicking in.

I still worried day to day about our own health, but so far we were holding steady and we were all healthy. The state of California was officially moved to a stay-at-home status over the weekend.

My brother and his wife and elementary-aged children are there. Although they, too, had been staying close to home, it put an official stamp on their current situation – and more and more states around the country were doing the same, many of them not far from us.

On Saturday night, my brother set up a Google Hangouts video chat with them in California and with my parents in Florida, who had been spending the winter in the warmer weather but were very possibly in for a longer visit than they’d originally anticipated. Once again, I was grateful for current technology that allows us to have some sort of contact with our family members spread out across the country. It was nice to see their faces and hear their voices and to all be in the same virtual “room” at the same time.

We spent pretty much our entire Sunday morning and afternoon moving our daughter out of her college dorm in Massachusetts, a completely surreal and upsetting experience in itself. A somber mood permeated the campus and her dorm that day. Arriving and finding her room just as she’d left it when she assumed she’d be back, and now dismantling it from that point, was hard for us, and for her it was very overwhelming. The day was a physical and emotional whirlwind and we spent much of it in disbelief over the whole thing.

We couldn’t believe that we were there, we couldn’t believe what we were doing, and we couldn’t believe why we were doing it.

Seeing students and their families emptying rooms and loading up cars, doing the move-out in March instead of May, was difficult to process. My heart broke for the seniors there, and nationwide, and their families. They were on my mind that day in particular. But, we, like all the other people there, did what we had to do as quickly and efficiently as we could, and got her moved out.

I took photos around the dorm of COVID-19 information sessions that were going on before they left, of signs posted about social distancing and of not sharing elevator space. I also noted sadly some of the postings for upcoming events that sounded fun, but would now never happen.

I saw some of the kids and adults using gloves to do their move, and I saw how happy a few of the kids were when they were able to get a chance to say a quick hello – but more importantly, the chance to say a real goodbye – to those they’d left so abruptly. Several times throughout the day I thought I might cry, but I kept my emotions in check – and amazingly, so did our daughter.

Monday morning would start our state’s first day of virtual learning, and our two high school daughters were ready, although a bit apprehensive of how things might go. Our college daughter still had her second week of “spring break” to get through before her classes picked up again, this time as an online platform as well. It would give her some time to get organized at home from the move and to get her head settled back into the space she was now in, and ready to work from home.

As a former educator and someone who still works in an educational realm, I had goosebumps the night before remote learning began statewide just like the night before a typical first day of school. I knew this was something that had never been done before – an entire state starting online schooling full time, simultaneously, as a means of keeping instruction going through a crisis situation. It was history in the making, and I knew it. Our kids were going to be part of something bigger than just their own schoolwork.

I watched my social media posts from teachers I knew, and I was bursting with pride as they shared all of the work they’d been doing over the past week of what had been deemed “April vacation” for our state’s students and what turned into a week of intense prep time for their teachers during their days, nights and weekends.

On Monday morning, my girls sent me photos at work dressed and ready to “go,” their laptops in hand, ready for the new first day of school. From what I could see, they were generally looking forward to school, to having some sort of routine and normalcy – even if it was a new normal, even in a crisis.

Establishing contact again with their teachers, friends and peers in their classes also provided a sense of normalcy, and overall their first day of school went well for us, although I know that for others it may not have gone as smoothly.

Many of the teachers in our school already utilized Google Classroom for posting work for students, so that part of it was a typical routine and a continuation of what they were already used to. There were some bumps along the way as they worked through the day and through some unfamiliar platforms – a couple of Google meetings were overlapping, or someone’s audio was not working right away – but they were able to get through it and to work pretty independently given their ages and their overall familiarity with the technology platforms.

Partway through the day on Monday, I finished my work at the office and was told that I could work from home going forward until further notice. I had always worked from home since having my children, and for years and years I had worked through the kinks of managing toddlers, preschoolers, young children, managing homework and cooking meals all while getting my work done.

My current position was a new one since August, and for the first time in decades, I finally had an office. I loved it, and I loved the people I worked with. I found it ironic to come home on Monday afternoon and to slide right back into my work-from-home routines and spaces, although I was thankful to know that I would still love the new group of people I’d be working with, and I was especially thankful to know they were all old enough to now manage themselves and their needs. I jokingly hung my parking pass from the office on my living room lamp to designate that I was working a new job from home.

My husband was already working from home, with Monday being his first full day working from the “playroom” in the basement. That room has gone through many changes over the years as our kids have grown, and we had recently turned it into more of a hangout space. Now it was suddenly a full-on work-from-home space. For the foreseeable future, we five would all be finding our own corners of the house from which to conduct our own work and education. In the coming days we’d hear conference calls or Zoom meetings coming up from the basement, saxophones playing for recording down the hall, and Google Meets video classes taking place from the bedrooms. We were in a new world, for sure, but we were together and we were healthy.

That Monday evening we celebrated our family’s two March 23 birthdays, with our youngest turning 15, a birthday twin with my husband. Although oftentimes on a school night we might normally celebrate at home, this year seemed strange because, as a friend pointed out, the decision was made for us to stay home, it wasn’t by choice. We could not leave the house if we wanted to, and even if we could, there was really no place to go. The older girls decorated the cake we’d made and used a coronavirus theme to lighten the mood a little bit, but to me it would be a forever reminder when we looked back on the photos from the day. I knew we would always remember this birthday celebration this year.

As the days went by, we worked through our menu of dinners we’d put together the week before, based on whatever we could find in the grocery stores. We picked our favorite meals first and saved the least favorites for the coming days. We spent our nights relaxing, playing games, working on a puzzle or watching TV. No one had to be anywhere, for the first time ever. It was quiet and in some ways that was a nice change.

I continued to be amazed by the grocery stores and the things that people would completely buy out. Cooking spray was on my list. It was almost all gone when I got to the store. Why? Other people must know something I didn’t, so I also bought two, the last two on the shelf, and I found myself doing a little bit of panic shopping myself.

Although I could find fresh vegetables in most places, I was always on the hunt for frozen vegetables that would keep for a longer period of time, and yet they were gone everywhere we went. When I finally found some whole green beans, I bought all three available bags. Then I found cut green beans and bought the last bag of those, too. Frozen stir-fry veggies – one bag left, and I bought it. I had this intense feeling that if I didn’t, next time they’d be gone and we might have to go a day without a vegetable.

“You have to stop buying frozen vegetables,” my husband finally said on Tuesday of Week 2. “I can’t close the freezer. We have enough now.”

I laughed, but I could suddenly somewhat identify with my grandparents and how they must have felt during the Great Depression, hiding things and storing things for when they might not have them but would need them, and the sense of insecurity and panic they must have lived with for so long during and forever after that period of time.

I found myself doing the same thing with allergy-friendly ingredients for my daughter. I had a bag of gluten-free flour in the canister and I was pretty sure I had a spare on the shelf at home, but there was only one bag left on the shelf at Target one day and I had to grab it, just in case we would need it. I didn’t want to not have it. That would add up to seven pounds of gluten-free flour when I finally sat and did the math.

During Week 1, I couldn’t find her allergy-friendly chicken nuggets anywhere. I finally found one bag that first weekend and I bought it, but when I went back to the store during Week 2 and found one remaining bag again, I bought it, just in case. Eventually we’d need it, but our freezer was beginning to pop open on its own. Our shelves in the garage were filled with our food plus all the food we brought home from the college move out.

We had a lot, and yet I still sometimes felt a sense of panic bubbling up inside. “What if?” What if we needed [fill-in-the-blank] and didn’t have any and couldn’t get out to get some? Clearly, based on the empty shelves in the grocery stores, I wasn’t the only one feeling that way.

Friday, March 27, marked the end of the Cranston West community’s official 14-day period of self-quarantine. It also marked the end of the first week of virtual school. We had developed daily routines for school and work with various quiet spots for working and video conferencing, and I think we all enjoyed the later high school start times and the flexibility in being able to eat breakfast and lunch at more regular times.

The girls had so far been able to manage their work, turning everything in on time, and overall, I deemed the first week a success. I remained grateful to their teachers for going above and beyond in preparing for the week, for thinking outside the box, but also in connecting with our girls throughout the week, whether it was through email, Google Classroom or “in person” in video chats. It made this second week go by, it gave some social interaction and some structure to what had previously been a long and boring week prior.

Although the official quarantine was now over, our girls had been prepped all along that not a whole lot would be changing. We’d still be laying low, staying close to home. As we listened to the governor’s press conferences each day, we were reminded that this was a marathon, not a sprint, and that we were still in for months of this “new normal” ahead of us, rather than weeks. 

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