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Dealing with the pandemic: Hard choices for students, parents

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Whether you have a 4-year-old, 14-year-old or a first-year freshman home with you right now, it's an adjustment.

Even up to his last moments on the Williams College campus before it closed down for the semester to slow the spread of this novel coronavirus, sophomore David "Davey" Morse, co-president of The Williams Forum, was working to still hold a March 13 forum on how students and young people could be responsible for themselves and one another amid the pandemic.

"This is still important," he said. "We're worried."

It was worry, not just about classes being cancelled, but worry about what would be next.

How would students who couldn't leave campus get the money to survive? Could young people help deliver groceries and pharmaceuticals to shut-in seniors and other neighbors? Should students be partying, relishing their last moments on campus with friends, or should they be focused on distancing themselves, and getting out of Dodge?

For Morse, leaving campus meant heading home to the New York City area.

"My sister and I aren't so worried about getting it ourselves as we are our parents getting it," he said at the time, during a March 13 phone interview. "We've been talking with our parents about how to strike a balance of staying inside and keeping our spaces clean and the mental health benefits of just getting outside for some fresh air."

He also wondered, "what it's going to be like after being away from college to be back home."

It's an adjustment. But students of all ages and their families are finding myriad ways to adapt.

The Williams Record,l the student-run newspaper of Williams College, is still publishing remotely, covering everything from the recent admission of the Class of 2024 to President Maud Mandel's decision to adopt a universal pass/fail grading system for the rest of the semester.

At the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, student leaders of the college radio station WJJW, created "Live From Quarantine: A Socially Distanced Podcast" to discuss life off campus, remote learning, and the fact that the station's programming has been put on temporary hiatus because of the pandemic.

"I don't know how to start this thing because this is such a weird predicament that we're all in," a deejay says.

The 52-minute program offers a snapshot into the students mindsets, ranging from vulnerable to hopeful. Partway through the program another deejay comments, "Despite all the downfalls, there's still so much that we can do and so much that I think that a lot of us are finding out we can do..."

School-age highs and lows

There's also some huge adjustments happening on the pre-K-12 home fronts, as the majority of family lives, once separated by busy schedules, classrooms and office cubicles, have collided and abruptly crash-landed into kitchens and living rooms. In Massachusetts, school buildings are shut down until at least May 4. Everyone's making additional sacrifices to their usual routines.

As Eagle journalist Lindsey Hollenbaugh has been documenting in her "Quarantined with kids" blog, the new day-to-day interactions with her 4-year-old son are comprised of equal parts humor and heartbreak.

She writes of one exercise in social distancing: "But this morning, we went right up to his best buddy's window and waved. Little, sweet James' family rushed to the window, opened it, leaving the screen down, and David and I stayed on the lawn a safe distance away. The joy we all shared in those 10 minutes on the lawn is enough to make me tear up. We laughed over seeing each other in pajamas, shared movie recommendations and learned that every one is still healthy. ... It wasn't a long visit, just enough to make my sweet boy smile the whole way home, and this mom felt more connected to other parents going through the same thing."

Sopheap Nhim Ovitsky and Colin Ovitsky of Pittsfield are working while managing four children at home: 5-year-old twins Hannah and Samson, 8-year-old Haya, and Connor, 16.

While schools are preparing to launch more formal remote learning plans in early April, families have been left to make the best decisions for their kids and abilities on their own. What many families are doing now is not to be confused with homeschooling, which, in Massachusetts, is guided by law and requires homeschool families to go through a rigorous curriculum design and documentation process.

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Nhim Ovitsky said via email: "During this difficult and incredibly confusing time for the kids I am not doing strict school work. Instead I am doing some natural environment learning by way of cooking, hikes, cleaning and play. We do stick to a loose schedule and try to get outside at least twice a day. Our 'academic' time could be again anything from cooking (using measuring cups, dividing food, chopping, reading labels, etc.) to a nature hike and exploring the wildlife and spring blossoms. Of course they have access to screen time, twice a day, for about an hour each."

She said she particularly worries for her teenager and his teen friends who tend to have more active and interdependent social lives. She said of her son, "He went from seeing his friends everyday, working out with his teammates each day after school, and hanging out at night, to nothing."

Like other parents, Nhim Ovitsky is trying to find the balance of keeping kids and teens inside and trusting them to maintain a social distance if they go out for public walks or hikes to get that much-needed fresh air and stimulation.

Michele Casey is a teacher at Greylock Elementary School in North Adams and also has a teenage stepdaughter.

She's also trying to find the balance of connecting with kids and families from a distance. She has 21 students in her kindergarten classroom, and has been able to connect with about half of them through ClassDojo, an online communication platform she's used in school throughout the year.

"This is not ideal for anybody," she said. So far, she's heard from a mother who's scheduled online play dates for her son to see his friends, but also found out even that, in turn, is tough.

"She said later in the day he burst into tears at dinner because he realized he's missing his friends so much," Casey said.

"I miss them, too," she said of her students.

At the same time, she's heard of families using creative teaching methods, ones, she said, even she's never thought of.

"One family showed me how they're studying the path of water using celery and watching how it soaks up different colored water," she said.

Right now, to keep families socially engaged, she's thinking about relaunching a project she did as a kid: creating a school cookbook, with recipes submitted by different families in the school.

North Adams Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Malkas said she encourages families to embrace analog learning, be it finding a good book to sink into or trying something new. "Learn a new skill, something that's part of the preparation for adult living. Cook, learn to sew, change the oil in your car — these are really valuable skills. You don't have to wait for a formalized plan to start integrating every day life in the education of your child," she said.

Inequities of a pandemic

While many parents and teachers are worried about learning regression in their students, Malkas, Casey and other educators also worry about families staying together versus falling apart during these trials, and meeting their basic needs.

If anything, Malkas said, she wants her families during this crisis to "stay healthy, stay sane."

Every individual and family will have their own shifts and learning curves to navigate, and not all experiences are created equal. As cafeterias are closed and meal programs and food pantries are forced to adjust their hours, food insecurity will rise as some families struggle to find the transportation and help to get to these sites on time.

Some students in the Berkshires will struggle to learn and grow with nonexistent or languishing connections to broadband and other social support networks and direct services.

"Our biggest concern is that we have kids who depend on the schools, every day, for nourishment, for medical support from school nurses, for a break from really hard home lives," said Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason McCandless.

"There is not a replacement for the institution of school," he said.


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