It started back in May. After two solid months of social shock and awe, my kids cracked. Quarantine for a disease they could neither see nor understand took its toll. The 7-year-old drew faces on a lime and a raw egg, which got into a heated argument. The lime won. When my 2-year-old began talking to a ham sandwich, it answered back.
Isolation 1, kids 0. Clearly, I needed to do something about their mental health.
To lessen the loneliness for our whole family, we began to associate with a select group of friends, judiciously.
Risky? Definitely. We’d all come to terms with playing COVID roulette. But the relief in having real human contact — even on a small scale — was indescribable. First, we spoke across lawns. Over time, we allowed our children to play together and developed an unspoken pact. Like-minded, we trusted each other to limit trips, social distance, wash hands, wear a mask around others, and use common sense. At a time when suspicion was the default and death around the corner, trust felt both illicit and audacious. But it was what we all desperately needed.
Weeks went by and we relaxed enough to — gasp — sit with each other outside and talk. The main topics of conversation? The kids' mounting depression in isolation, and the reviled virtual school experience.
We dreaded returning to the broken boundary between home and school: forcing our children to stare at a screen for hours (don’t “good” parents do the opposite?). Tripping over confusing technology. The whirlwind of juggling full-time jobs with zero child care.
Worst of all? Anticipating a repeat of watching our children alone, and in tears.
Fearful of the horrors September might bring, and anxious to get back to work uninterrupted, I (like many others) gave birth to a brainchild — the neighborhood pod. If my friends and I were going to survive the school year, we had to push the boundaries of our trust pact and risk the unspeakable — being in each other’s homes.
We pooled our money to hire a full-time teacher for the older kids, and a part-time preschool teacher for the little ones. Our group interviewed each, and made sure everyone felt comfortable that their partners in this pod took COVID seriously enough to cross the threshold. We’d rely on the teachers to manage the curriculum. Opting out of the Cheltenham District altogether in favor of a seasoned cyber school was a thought. But no one wanted to take money away from our public schools, so we scrapped that quickly.
The logistics were complicated. The friend who volunteered her home realized toddler-proofing wasn’t feasible. Another friend weighed the benefits and opted for day care for her toddler. With two short weeks until school began, we broke off from the original pod and formed a new one, two doors down. The preschool teacher we’d located became our pod’s leader. A few kids from the first pod joined us, then a new kindergartner followed. My husband and I scrambled to convert our basement into a classroom — a Herculean task for this aspiring hoarder, requiring hours of cleaning, painting, patching, donating, and trips to Ikea.
“The first days were straight out of a Stanley Kubrick film: dramatic tension, disturbing scenes, abject confusion.”
The first days were straight out of a Stanley Kubrick film: dramatic tension, disturbing scenes, abject confusion. The complaints came: My Chromebook won’t connect. I can’t hear. She’s kicking me. We got audio feedback loud enough to fell a rhinoceros. Then, whoops — five kids had gym at the same time, in one room. And how many apps do eight children need? (Just log on to Boondoggle through Quizzlebark via PoofySplat to calculate that, if you can remember your passwords.)
Uninterrupted work was impossible. We were all-hands-on-deck to keep a schedule and calm meltdowns. And then came interpersonal conflicts from adults and kids alike.
My experience working in an organizational development firm, while running a catering business, came in handy. I realized that I needed to run our pod like a mini-organization — because that’s exactly what it is. We were overwhelmed and miserable, when the point was for all of us to be happier and for the kids to learn effectively. Then it hit me: Humans aren’t wired for confusion and uncertainty. No one knows what to do, because this is all new. We don’t know when it is time to be a parent, a teacher, or tech support in this new world. And we experience frustration when our roles aren’t clearly defined.
So, I defined them. Responsibility charting is a tool used to help companies tackle similar issues. I decided to use it at home. We defined each adult’s area of responsibility, including my responsibility to manage the pod — while staying out of the way. And so far it’s working, mostly. Unfortunately, no matter how good the surrounding environment is, a virtual curriculum is a hard sell for kindergartners. Four hours on Google Meet is rough on a 5-year-old. PowerPoint presentations are less than ideal for little ones who can’t read. Our kindergartner left us to start private school, which is teaching in person.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are doing our best to settle in. We aren’t wired for uncertainty, but we are wired to adapt. Lessons are happening, work is turned in, and we’re even planning fun, socially distant activities with the other pod, like next month’s talent show.
Our trust pact was tested in Week 4. One of our students has a sibling in the other pod, where a child caught a sore throat. Although her chance of exposure was remote, she self-quarantined, and parents in both pods were immediately notified. She tested for COVID the next morning. The quick action and transparency left me optimistic — and her test came back negative.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the millions of parents out there for whom a pod is not an option. Even with all the headaches, we know: We are the lucky ones.
Here’s hoping that all educators and parents continue to find creative solutions to balance safety, learning, and sanity — a nd some semblance of normalcy during a time that is anything but normal.
Bethany Watson-Ostrowski owns Bethany’s Events Catering and is a project manager and external relations lead for Vector Group Consulting.