Five Families At The Outset Of The Pandemic, & A Month Later

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In mid-March, as the nature of the novel coronavirus was becoming more clear, much was unknown about how bad things would get. Work-from-home orders and school closures began in Seattle in early March, and rolled across the nation over the weeks following, as the CDC declared the outbreak a pandemic on March 11, and governors subsequently began to tighten restrictions. At a time when many parents across the U.S. were still going to work and wondering if schools would close, I spoke to five families about their worries, their jobs, stresses, and the wellbeing of their children.

In the month that followed, the United States rolled out a series of shutdowns that changed every aspect of American life. Schools, businesses, houses of worship — everything that undergirded the structure of daily family life screeched to a halt.

I checked back in with those families recently to see how things had changed, what they’ve learned, and what their struggles are. Some had lost work or seen relatives hospitalized. There had been birthdays in isolation. One thing that hadn't changed — the one thing they each shared — was a sense of worry about the future.

It’s the first time she has been able to stay home with her daughter as a single mom.

Then. On March 11, Brittany Wylie, a paraprofessional educator at an elementary school in Youngstown, Ohio, began to hear rumors of a shutdown due to the novel coronavirus. “It seemed such a wild thought,” she said days later, “a Hail Mary.”

On Thursday March 12, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine gave a press conference in which he announced schools would temporarily close for three weeks, tentatively reopening on April 3.

Wylie and her coworkers silently stuffed folders with work for kids to take home.

At that point, Wylie was focused on her students. In a high-poverty district, many relied on the school meals through the week and backpacks of nonperishables to get through the weekend. “I didn’t even process that my own third grader would also be home with me,” said Wylie, who is a single mom, at the time. “My brain was just overloaded, then suddenly it was like, ding ding ding!”

Aurora was excited but nervous about the new adventure of staying in their apartment and doing virtual school. Always on the go, and an avid dancer, it was a huge change to just be at home. “She’s done the school work mostly without complaint, it keeps us in routine.”

Now. A month into the shut down, Aurora turned 9. Her mom threw all her crafty energy into a Zoom birthday party for her, even mailing her friends craft kits so they could all work on the same project. While it wasn’t what Aurora would have picked, Aurora now says it was her best birthday yet.

Wylie is an extrovert and knows that this new way of life will begin to chafe very soon. She has built a dance barre out of PVC pipe for her daughter, and hopes that the exercise isn’t annoying her downstairs neighbors. It’s been incredibly hard on Wylie and her daughter to not see their great-grandparents and grandfather, who were a constant presence in their lives. They want to keep them safe, though, and could not live with the guilt if they exposed them to COVID-19.

Wylie sees one major positive of the shutdown. “Just on a personal level, it is probably the [most] privileged I’ve ever been.” What she means by that is that she never has an opportunity to stay home with her daughter — to craft, to have lazy days. They are usually leaving the house with bags packed for all their stops, shuffling childcare, making it work. “When this is over, I will be so happy for the world,” she says, “but a little sad for me.”

Her husband was stocking shelves, now he is in the hospital.

Then. Mississippi's governor issued a social-distancing order on March 28 — much later than many other states, but in line with many of the Southern states where the shutdown was slower in coming. When I spoke to Ashley Salina on March 20, she was adjusting to teaching from home with two young children at the house, with schools already closed, while her husband Jimmy worked overtime to keep shelves stocked at the grocery store where he worked in Clinton. He could not take a full day off at any point early in the shutdown. They were focused on finding ways to get their kids outside, such as walking the dogs or finding empty parking lots to ride wheeled toys in. Salina was thankful that they had been able to purchase a home recently with a yard. Friends and neighbors living in apartments were struggling with pent-up energy, she said, which she understood — they had long lived in an apartment.

In the early days of the distancing order, Salina finds distance learning nearly impossible. She developed a schedule for her 4- and 6-year-old children, and then failed to stick to it. She was messaging parents of her students all day, trying to remain available. Her daughter missed her teacher and her friends immensely.

Now. A month into the shut down, Salina’s husband was hospitalized with a sudden pneumonia. Two COVID-19 tests have come back negative, but it has been over a week since they last saw him. The wait is stretching Salina to near her breaking point — she is working full time with two young kids, her spouse hospitalized and not allowed visitors, and her support system unable to come and assist. “Who's gonna watch my kids?” she says. “My 66-year-old parents with high blood pressure or asthma? My sister-in-law who's husband is waiting on a kidney transplant? I’ve had to tell my mom to stay away several times. We don't have any good choices and I don't know who outside of family would willingly decide to expose themselves.”

Her children are expressing fear that Daddy will die, and she tries to reassure them while racked with fear herself. Still, she’s trying little things to keep morale up. Picking up a pack of Play-doh on an essentials run, finding creative ways to celebrate her daughter’s birthday when her party was cancelled. Her kids have enjoyed the routine of going to pick up school lunch every day. Even though, mom notes, they never ate it while in school. Any little thing that creates a sense of normalcy, though, is what her children are craving.

She hasn’t been able to meet her new nieces, and doesn’t know when she will.

Then. “My husband was a little annoyed with me at first because I wasn’t taking it seriously,” said Nicole Schwartz, who lives in Houston with her husband and two young boys, when I spoke to her in mid-March. “Just before the stay-at-home order began, I had some friends over to swim and it just seemed like kind of surreal in other areas of the country. But then they cancelled the Houston Rodeo, and I knew this was a huge deal. It’s such a tradition here, and such a source of revenue. That’s not taken lightly.”

Her husband, who usually travels often for work, began working out of their den while she continued to run her own business during breaks in the day.

When the stay-at-home order started in her city, her mother-in-law was also visiting from New Mexico. She decided to stay, so it has been an added blessing in many ways to have an extra hand. At the same time, keeping a grandparent — who is in the high-risk age group — safe was an added stress Schwartz worried about.

Now. At first, there were so many fun socially distant ideas. Driveway parties on their cul-de-sac, Bible studies via Zoom that seemed novel and unique to cuddle up on your couch and chat with your friends. Video chat happy hours. Now, after a month at home, the bloom is off the rose. As an extrovert, the distance really wears on Schwartz. “I just don’t want to do more Zoom meetings or drive-by birthday parties or anything like that. I miss seeing people face-to-face,” she says.

The hardest loss for Schwartz has been becoming an aunt for the first time, twice. Her sister and sister-in-law both gave birth to baby girls in April, but plans to fly interstate to meet the babies and help out were cancelled. Schwartz doesn’t know when she will get to meet her nieces, and that is heartbreaking. She’s trying not to watch the news too much — it stresses her out as she worries about who is following the orders and who isn’t, and how long this pandemic will go on.

Still, she is trying to find some bright spots in a weird season of life. Used to her husband traveling often, they’ve fixed up their bikes and have enjoyed daily family bike rides, are thankful to have a backyard pool, and have enjoyed s’mores over the fire. “I feel like as a mom I was always saying, ‘Ugh, we are always stuck at home.’ Now I realize how much I miss my gym, and church and playgrounds,” says Schwartz. “I miss playgrounds, so much.”

They struggled to find basic supplies in shops, and now they’re ‘quarantine-haircut’ deep into the shutdown.

Then. Michelle Ross, her husband Gabe, and her 12-year-old stepdaughter Ruth had experienced sweeping changes in Vancouver, Washington, long before friends and family in other cities, thanks to an early outbreak in Seattle. “The first week of being at home was a lot of adjusting to new things we've never done or thought of before,” Ross told me on March 24, at which point they had been under a lockdown for over two weeks. “We have been staying home with one trip to the grocery store a week, taking long drives, and taking the dogs out for long walks every day to get us all some much-needed exercise. The grocery stores are forcing us to get creative. There are limited paper products, no flour, and it's hard to find pantry staples at times like pasta, rice, and beans.”

The toilet-paper wars were well underway. “We are lucky to have a few delivery subscriptions such as Imperfect Foods, which delivers fresh produce, and Reel Paper, which does a bamboo based toilet paper that will deliver.”

Ruth had adjusted to distance learning, keeping up her drum practice for marching band in the garage/in her room/outside/where, much to the chagrin of neighbors. She started a daily journal of her quarantine experiences, and studying Spanish, which is new to her.

Ross trains dogs in clients’ homes, so has not been able to work since the pandemic started. Gabe transitioned to working at home, from the dining room table. One of Gabe’s aunts had been diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier in March, and was recovering. Ross began sewing face masks for her mother-in-law, who is a nurse facing limited supplies of personal protective equipment. “Until the stay-at-home order is lifted, we are going to be doing our best to make the most of our forced family time together,” said Ross.

Now. Entering their sixth week at home, the family has developed more of a schedule and routine. Washington state has officially cancelled school for the rest of the year, so Ruth is working hard to keep busy with assignments, and using Zoom to stay connected to teachers and classmates.

Since Ross can’t work right now, the diminished income has been a stress, but they are trying to cut things where they can. Runs on supplies seem to have leveled off in their area, and they’ve been able to find all their basic necessities on grocery trips.

“We've done puzzles, homemade pizza nights, dance parties, and Gabe and I even braved giving each other haircuts (which turned out surprisingly well on both accounts!),” says Ross. “It's feeling less scary to be at home all the time now, and we are working on seeing the good in this new lifestyle while still looking forward to things going back to normal.”

They were essential workers, and now they’re furloughed.

Tory Aquino-Sims and her husband live with her two girls, ages 14 and 15, in a rural suburb of Pittsburgh. When the pandemic started, both she and her husband, who are hearing instrument specialists, were classified as essential workers. “I am extremely nervous for my family and our exposure level, but also for our patients who are considered most at risk due to multiple medical needs,” she told me.

Both she and her daughter Mariah are considered high-risk individuals themselves. Mariah has polyarticular spondyloarthropathy, a type of juvenile arthritis. Those like Mariah with autoimmune disorders are at a higher risk should they contract COVID-19 — the very medicines she takes to allow her to move and function suppress her immune system, making her very vulnerable. In addition, Aquino-Sims is pregnant and of advanced maternal age, which places her at high risk as well. So, from the beginning of the quarantine, there was no novelty or skepticism from the family. They had no choice but to take the pandemic very seriously.

Now. On April 6, Aquino-Sims was furloughed, and then her husband the following week. Since then, they’ve just been home. A month in, they’ve found their routine, but it is monotonous. Her daughters are completing their coursework online. “They do not need my help, although I have to remind them frequently to get online and do their work,” says Aquino-Sims.

Supplies have been hit-or-miss in their area, and basic supplies like disinfectant wipes or hand sanitizer cannot be found anywhere. They’ve developed a routine: grocery pickup, placed straight in their trunk, and coming home to wipe down every package.

Aquino-Sims has also learned to not underestimate how much teenagers can eat. “We are using a ton more groceries with everyone home. None of us have eaten out so that makes grocery trips more needed.”

Though it has been over a month, her daughters have gone nowhere. They are not taking a single chance, as hard as it is to be separated from loved ones. Seeing others push the limits and take risks is worrisome to the family. “Our major concern is for the safety of our family and families like ours. We are being overly cautious. We wear masks when we go out and gloves. My children have not left the house at all besides to go in the backyard to play.”