Outdoor school, in person amidst COVID-19, looks like this

Nervous families want to know if sending kids back to “in person” school during a pandemic is safe, and if it is worth the risk. Here’s what I’ve seen at my child’s school in September 2020.

I write this post first acknowledging my position as a parent with every conceivable advantage. Having been on site every day since two days after Labor Day, I can share what the autumn of COVID-19 looks like at one small New England institution serving elementary and middle grade students.

Red autumn plant by fence - 1

Decision 2020: Remote or in person education

My younger child, who prefers learning in a group, was given the option by his school to attend in person or remotely. Our community has low COVID-19 infections rates that makes this a reasonable choice. Even better, “in person” classes would be conducted outdoors until the weather turns cold when autumn segues into winter.

In accordance with advice from the department of health, DS2‘s school is requiring* the kids to:

  1. maintain social distance at all times and
  2. to wear masks any time they aren’t seated at their assigned desks for working or eating.

Lectern with laptop and whiteboard propped on mobile tool cart outsideMy child requested a return to in person school, and we agreed that he may go until they move indoors with the caveat that any surge in local virus outbreaks or lax enforcement of health protocols at school could change our position.

Even with low COVID-19 infection rates, I would not send my asthmatic son to school indoors at this point in time. We also have two elderly adults in our household, both with significant underlying medical conditions on the CDC’s watch list, so I’m on higher alert than I would be if I had only our nuclear family to consider.

Because I am a full time parent, I volunteered to help the teachers keep an eye on the children during lunch- and free-time. Recess inherently lacks the strict visual supervision of class time. My selfish reason for doing this is to make sure my kid isn’t more exposed in reality than official policy might suggest.

Setting self-concern aside, however, I also proposed myself for this new volunteer position because I knew that our teachers would have all of their usual work to do in addition to enforcing a slew of new rules that combine novelty with literal life and death consequences. Showing up and lending a hand seemed the very least I could do. My time is my own to spend and three other adults would remain present at my house to support my teen with his online work.

When I walk the playground for an hour and a half, the teachers have an opportunity to take a real break and eat lunch in peace. The kids still benefit from having a grown up—me!— available to remind them to replace their masks after they eat, and my extra set of eyes helps even the most active among them to maintain social distancing no matter how vigorously they are defending a fort, swinging on the tire swing, or digging a giant pit.

COVID-19 School Lesson 1: Create defined spaces minding social distance for everything fascinating

Here’s my first take-away advice for other adults, teachers and parents: kids who are engrossed in something are going to forget to mind their social distance. The younger the kid, the quicker this occurs. If awesome projects are happening, do everything you can to set up “stations of awesomeness” that are fixed to locations six feet apart!

An example at our school? The science teacher brought in several live frogs for a lesson. Afterwards, multiple kids wanted to hold the tiny creatures as the teacher cleared away equipment to her car. While each child did a great job waiting his or her turn, they were drawn closer as if by magnets whilst waiting. They started out sitting at opposite corners of a large blanket where they’d been assigned for the lesson, but nothing prevented the forward creep of excitement that all parents know from their own young kids. Blanket spread on lawn with pumpkin, pencils, etc.

Separate frog habitats on individual, smaller towels with “waiting spots” assigned on other, distanced towels (one per kid) would have worked better than the larger blanket which was fine for a teacher-directed lesson with direct supervision. Visual distancing cues are good; physical barriers are better; using both together is best!

None of us wants to prevent kids from the deep concentration of fascination with their work, but we adults must step up to keep them safe while they are in a state of flow. “Six feet” is a pretty vague concept to any elementary school student; it’s utterly meaningless to one who’s distracted!

COVID-19 School Lesson 2: Kids need masks that fit well, especially once they are in motion

Another tip I’d offer parents is to watch your child play in the yard or at a park for a solid hour or so with a new mask on. It becomes very obvious on the playground when someone’s mask is ill-fitting.

Disposable surgical maskWatching the children organically form into a whooping, running mass as they re-accustomed themselves to being together was one of the most heart-lifting things I’ve seen since the pandemic began. These kids are thrilled to be in each other’s company again, and the joy of play was plain on every covered face. I felt terrible each time I had to interrupt a game to remind a kid that his mask was slipping.

The same kid would struggle to follow the rules on one day but not the next for what appeared to be a non-behavioral reason: one mask fit that kid’s face better than the other.

Some of the little kids show up wearing masks that are too large and therefore floppy. Three older kids on different days tried using neck gaiters as face coverings, but each was constantly adjusting his tube of cloth as those simply don’t stay up once a child is in motion. Gaiters are not a good option for school face covering.

5 styles of cloth face mask next to surgical maskTry to get your kid to jog around the block in a new mask before sending her with it to “in person” school. A kid with a mask that doesn’t fit well—or feel comfortable—is being set up for discipline and failure. There are many mask styles available now, so keep looking until you find one your child can tolerate.

A certain young child behaved beautifully every day but one; when I asked him what was going on with his mask that day, he admitted that it smelled funny. Mom and Dad, if you’re thinking of trying a new laundry detergent, consider doing the experiment on a Friday night and having the kids try on their masks well before school begins on Monday morning.

Another thing I wish every worried parent knew is how well the youngest kids are adapting to wearing a mask all day, every day. It already seems natural to most of them! From what I’ve seen, the littlest children acclimated quickly to what was just one more “first” in their short lives.

Our middle-group kids seem to be the most resistant to the need to wear masks. It’s tough growing into your “question authority” phase during a pandemic, plus these kids are better used to school and life without face coverings. I appreciate that our school is taking a hard line about the necessity of protecting others by taking precautions, but I feel for the rebellious ones.

Schools, make sure your pupils know when and where they are allowed to step aside for a mask break without breaking the rules. Some kids need to exercise this kind of autonomy more than others, or more often. Give them a way to do it safely when you can.

COVID-19 School Lesson 3: Educators who worked hard are now working HARDER

Though some people bemoan “lazy” teachers who took the job to get summers off, I think those are mostly people who’ve never managed groups of kids!

Professional educators tend to be people who sincerely want to help children achieve their potential. COVID-19 has foisted a lot of extra work onto teachers, none of it within the normal scope of training for the job. Oh, yes, and getting it wrong runs the risk of making children sick. I have to believe it is the rare educator who enjoys hurting children.

I am spending only about a quarter of the school day being vigilant on behalf of the pupils on our playground, and I am exhuasted by the time I get home from this duty. Sure, I live with chronic illness, so I’m hardly a model of vigor and vim, but keeping watch takes a lot out of anyone who cares about her charges.

Desk with plexiglass barrier - 1

Our school’s leader is a handy type. He was able to add plexiglass partitions to the kids’ work tables himself. This woodworking task was done during his “summer vacation.”

Don’t worry: the plexi extends above the wooden supports by another two times their length, but that’s hard to see on a small screen. The barrier extends well above the kids’ faces.

School tents for COVID-19 - 1On a fine September morning, tents nestled alongside a red-painted barn appear positively idyllic. School started with each child finding his desk ready for him, each with a personal bin for books and papers. The same fellow had to source and procure these new materials after doing the planning to figure out what was needed and how to pay for it.

Another bit of summer, consumed by COVID-19…

Upon arrival at school, kids help carry furniture and bins out of the barn to prepare for the new day.

But within the first week, a light rain highlighted a weakness of a certain style of canopy. Attempts to reach the manufacturer for parts proved that equipment bought from retail stores by small businesses—our school, in this case—often can’t be repaired economically.

A painful lesson for a tiny school without endowments or rich benefactors. Also, many extra hours of work outside the school day for a full time teacher.

Dismantled tent frame and fabric next to remaining erect EZ-Up style canopyOf course, there is more to weather than rain. When the breeze picked up, kids realized that outdoor classrooms require heavier jackets much earlier in the season.

And, it turns out, large sheets of plexiglass have their own issues with the wind!

Plexiglass vs. wind nature weather - 1

All of these little headaches have to be multiplied by the teachers’ love for their students and commitment to their well-being. They care if they get this right, and they want to keep the children safe.

At our school, most of the adults have years of experience doing the same jobs… in the same classrooms with their supplies just so. Though the school hasn’t moved, the transition to working outside the doors requires constant adjustments. That kind of effort consumes energy as well as time.

I suspect every member of the staff at our school feels like s/he is working a brand new job in a whole new environment while teaching. That is stressful, and that’s in addition to the requirement that these caring educators remember to remind kids as young as six years old to keep their distance and keep their masks on.

There’s no specific tip for this observation except to remind parents to be kinder than ever to their children’s teachers. Recognize that none of us has a monopoly on pandemic-induced stress. You and I may not have the same worst stressors during these crazy times, but odds are we both face some.

Two weeks into the new school year, I asked my son two questions this morning.

Are you able to learn in your socially distanced, outdoor classroom while wearing a mask?

Yes, he said. He’s learning just as well as always.

Then I asked him about socializing and play. Even with his mom on the playground annoying his peers, even with reminders and occasional rebukes about space and facial coverings, I asked him, is he having fun with his friends?

Yes, my son replied. He’s really happy to be back at school amongst other kids, even with the necessary restrictions.

For us, for now, in person education for this child is a risk worth taking.

Our employed household members continue to earn their usual paychecks, and both have the option to work from home. My home educated teen is attending all of the usual courses that we elect to outsource online. We have enough rooms for all this work to be conducted with relative privacy, and we had the means to upgrade our internet infrastructure over the summer to eliminate technical roadblocks we experienced in the spring.

I am counting my blessings, and they are myriad!

*Another change is the requirement to pack out all lunch detritus instead of disposing of potentially contaminated trash at school, and the kids no longer have access to a kitchenette for reheating their meals. My interest in waste free lunches and re-usable containers is serving us well. Hot food in insulated thermal jars is already receiving a warm welcome, and it is only mild September!

Prevalent smoking should, perhaps, keep you from visiting Austria

Austria is a lovely place to visit. It has gorgeous scenery, world class art and architecture to enjoy, and a population that generally struck me as warm and welcoming.

img_0895Bilingual acquaintances from the German language learning camp in Minnesota we attended told us that we would be given more opportunity to practice our speaking skills in Austria when compared with Germany. I found this to be true.

Austrians were, as a rule, friendly and helpful. They really didn’t immediately switch to English when they heard my attempts to speak deutsch. (Germans generally do, in my experience. And, yes, their English is better than my German, almost to the man, and woman, and very small child...)

 

Perhaps the one overriding negative experienced by an American tourist in Österreich—if the language barrier is a benefit to you as it is to me, as opposed to a real barrier—is the constant exposure to second hand smoke.

img_1055.jpgI’m old enough to remember the bad old days of smoking sections in the closed compartment of an airplane, though, thankfully, those disappeared before I began flying several times per year to attend college. Smoky bars and restaurants where I wouldn’t go with my friends due to air pollution were a real issue well into my young adulthood.

Being in Austria is like being transported into the past in this regard. It took me several days to adjust. Young people in the USA today probably don’t have the adaptive response to scope out a cafe before taking a seat lest one inadvertently land in the stinking smoking section.

Though there was some Austrian legislation enacted in recent years to create separate smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants, I still experienced unpleasantly smoky interiors several times during my trip.

Worse yet, it seems that Austrians don’t feel a need to segregate outdoor space for both smokers and non-smokers in any way. Some of us are sensitive enough that, no, even being seated the great outdoors is not enough to make it okay to sit at a table adjacent to or downwind from an active smoker.

My eyes water, and I start to cough. It’s not posturing; the smoke simply does affect me that quickly. My tearing eyes swelling shut and the irritation in my throat make me look around for the source, not the other way around.

Worse yet, because smoking is taken so much for granted in Austria, newcomers into a restaurant or onto a terrace who plan to smoke don’t think to take seats at a maximum distance from non-smokers who are already there. Try though I did to sit “far away” from all the smokers in otherwise lovely cafes, I was constantly being smoked out by new arrivals in Austria.

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These polite Austrian smokers sat at the stern of our pleasure cruise ship on the Danube, but the entire open top deck stank of cigar smoke from one man sitting forward at the bow

I gather that the xenophobic right wing government* currently in power is working to defend the rights of smokers even more violently valiantly in Austria. What a tragedy for the health of Austria’s citizens. Because, while I am easily swayed by libertarian arguments on many issues, smoking is simply not the same as free thought or speech.

The smoker has at least the option of a filter between himself and the known carcinogen he opts to ignite and inhale; standing nearby, my right to breathe freely is stolen from me.

Smoking in public places fundamentally infringes on the health and safety of others in the space. There are few other vices so directly malevolent to the public good.

Heavy drinker? While you could overindulge and vomit onto my shoes, you may be a quiet, maudlin drunk and not affect me at all. There is no equivalent for smokers. Anyone in the presence of a lit cigarette is being affected; the only remedy is to leave.

When someone invents the “smoker’s spacesuit” that operates with complete isolation of its user’s air supply and exhaust, there will be room to discuss the rights of smokers to light up in crowded public spaces.

I acknowledge your right to smoke, but I’d say the responsibility you shoulder when exercising that right is to maintain a great distance between yourself and others while you do so. The fact that you can no longer smell smoke from a few feet away is a part of the burden you’ve elected to carry with your habit; healthy people can be negatively affected at a dozen feet or more.

I was charmed by many kind, witty, thoughtful Austrians whom I encountered there. It was otherwise a wonderful place to visit, and there are many sights around the country I’d love to come back to see. Until a more modern and health-conscious public smoking policy has been enacted, however, I will probably stay away, and I would most certainly never take my asthmatic child to such a dangerous place.

Schade. What a shame.

*Self styled as the “Freedom Party,” though formed by former Nazi party members after WWII. Once again, do we see the same party harming others to grant themselves more freedom to enjoy their own lives?

A NY Times article I read while writing this post goes into more details of the political situation.

Flu

Just one word: flu.

I never use one word when one thousand will do, so, naturally, I will elaborate.

As if winter’s lingering darkness and New England’s coldest temperatures in years weren’t enough, we have to add widespread influenza infection to the list of legitimate complaints for still nascent 2018.

If my local children’s librarian* is to be believed, our corner of our state is the hardest hit in the area with this more-severe-than-average flu.

My situation isn’t even so bad. We are a house divided: only one of us has flu. I’m hunkering down with the sick one while DH keeps his distance and manages the healthy one. They leave us trays of food outside the door and occasionally send word about the outside world.

flu gear - 2The good news is that we have space enough to almost completely quarantine the sick kid. He hasn’t been downstairs for several days. Our over-the-top 1980s house came complete with a wet bar in the spacious master bedroom; between the mini fridge and the microwave, I can cover most of our needs without venturing forth myself.

We’re also lucky that the vicious cold spell is over. I can crack a window for ventilation between the child’s Petri dish of a nest and my frequently wiped down seat on the other side of the room. He isn’t lonely, and I haven’t caught the Plague yet. The separate heating zone for this room also assuages some of my guilt about sending so much heat literally out the window.

The bad news is that it’s the kid with the underlying condition making flu particularly dangerous that caught it.**

The doctor didn’t even want me to bring him in, citing the risk of exposure for others. He called in a prescription for Tamiflu and told me to plan on spending four to five days at home. The drug is the best thing medicine has got for reducing flu symptoms, but it only knocks half a day or so off the illness’s expected duration.

flu gear - 1Since the only side effect we’ve noticed is mild nausea and the evidence suggests Tamiflu reduces my son’s risk of hospitalization, I have no regrets about following this course of action.

An interesting aside: my husband’s doctor recommended getting the nasal swab flu test, but the pediatrician did not want to risk exposing others at a medical facility. DH’s internist would also have prescribed Tamiflu as a preventative to the rest of our household. The pediatrician did ask if my other son needed an Rx, too, but didn’t suggest Tamiflu for the adults.

We generally prefer to avoid taking drugs until they are absolutely necessary, so none of the rest of us are taking antiviral medication, but I found the variety of approaches interesting.

I should add here that, though I have a chronic illness, I am not considered immunocompromised at this point. If I were, I would take the Tamiflu without argument; as it is, I will play the odds.

We’ve increased the dosage on my son’s usual meds as directed, and I know the danger signs of severe illness for which I should watch, but the primary treatment for my sick kid is the same as for the rest of us unlucky enough to catch the flu: plenty of fluids and lots of rest at home.

I’m keeping myself sane by the following means:

  • Alphabears app on my iPad ~ the best word game I’ve played since my paid version of Bookworm stopped being supported after wretched EA bought innovative game developer PopCap.
  • Skullduggery Pleasant audiobooks ~ a great story that amuses both mom and child in the sickroom, but my older son had to jump through hoops to get the later books since they were only released in the UK. Read what you can get your hands on here in the USA, then agitate for the rest of Derek Landy’s series to be readily available where ever it is wanted.
  • Refining my packing list—and taking photos of same—for an upcoming trip that I will blog about after the fact ~ if you see better than usual pics after my next big adventure, you can thank 100 hours or so of enforced idleness wherein the closet became a welcome break from the monotony of the bedroom.
  • Wiping down doorknobs, light switches, and remote controls with disinfectant ~ okay, so that one isn’t so much fun as functional, but it does keep my brain occupied. “What did the child touch?” Right. Just about everything. Sigh.

Stay healthy, dear readers!

Wash yours hands often, or use hand sanitizer. Humidify your air if it approaches arid arctic conditions. The influenza virus is weakened at normal to high humidity levels aim for 50% RH***, and simple soap and water or the alcohol in sanitizer are sufficient to deactivate it on your skin before you transfer it to your vulnerable mucus membranes (i.e., nose and mouth, where the virus usually gets in.)

And if you do get sick with the flu, please, stay home until you’re no longer contagious.

Not sure if it is just a cold or the dreaded flu? Call your doctor!

If you’re not willing or able to do that, your best clues are:

  • sudden onset of symptoms,
  • severity of symptoms, and
  • presence of a fever.

When in doubt, stay home while sick. You are most contagious during the first few days with influenza.

If you have flu, you are spraying a cloud of virus into the surrounding environment with every breath. The person standing next to you could have a compromised immune system or a preemie at home.

Keep your germs to yourself. Let’s all work together so that this flu season winds down soon.

*I didn’t ask if she’d used her librarian superpowers to find out this fact, or the same gossip mere mortals employ to assess epidemic illness trends, so that might just be hearsay. As it served my preexisting notions, I just assumed she was correct.

**When I called his school to let them know he would be out sick, I learned that several other children from his class had the same symptoms. Ah, children. They’re the cutest little vectors for disease.

***Relative Humidity