Dip a COVID-cautious toe in cruise waters

We maintain a COVID-cautious* household as the third pandemic summer waxes. Where one member of our family is at high risk, we all choose to modify our daily behaviors to continue to protect him.

This is a cost of multi-generational living, though I find the personal and familial benefits of sharing our home with an elder abundant and easily justified. Since we can afford all the masks and testing we need, expending this trivial effort is well worth it. That’s the calculus in our home.Disposable surgical mask

Given our status, then, as “more careful than most,” it may surprise some that we plan to embark on a cruise with our teens in a little more than a month. Cruising, after all, gave the world its first widely reported COVID-19 super-spreader event.

Read a CDC research paper on the epidemiology of the Diamond Princess outbreak in February 2020 here.Cruise line booking page headlined 37 days before you leave with photos of Icelandic ports

There’s no doubt that the closed environment of a cruise ship offers a unique opportunity for certain germs to infect a captive audience of susceptible passengers. Many minds will leap immediately to norovirus. In truth, however, norovirus is common everywhere, but an outbreak is much more noticeable when a group of thousands travels en masse for seven or more days and management is required to track cases on board.

Similarly, though COVID-19 is definitively joining current passengers on cruise ships—in spite of requirements for vaccination and pre-embarkation testing—there is little evidence that the virus passes between personal staterooms via HVAC or other means. Actual contact tracing of ship-acquired infections, as on land, suggests spread directly from infected person to uninfected person.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 3

The greater risk on a cruise comes from queuing to board or partake in activities, eating or drinking in common facilities, or from socializing with other guests. More bodies in close proximity invites more infections. It’s math, not a magical zone of infection brought on by taking a ship out to sea.

Why, then, if we remain vigilant and siloed on land, is my family setting sail?

Like many, the pandemic disrupted our travel plans in 2020. For us, the result was a Future Cruise Credit (a.k.a., an F.C.C.). Cruise Critic defines Future Cruise Credits here.

We could have requested a cash refund when COVID-19 kept us from our 2020 voyage between Copenhagen and Boston. Instead, we opted to gamble on the future solvency of Holland America Line (HAL) and took the F.C.C. instead. Part of my personal rationale was the simple desire to see HAL survive the economic hit of the sudden shutdown.

The major down side to any credit like this is the set of contingencies for spending it. Unless we wanted to argue over the details of the F.C.C. we’d accepted, we had to book a cruise before the end of 2022.Pile of money

Here’s the key to why my family is cruising this summer: we’re not all going. While our 2020 trip would have included a grandparent, our 2022 party consists only of parents and children. All of us are vaccinated, boosted, and at statistically low risk of COVID-19 complications if infected. Our high risk loved ones are not inclined to sail at this time.

For those of us embarking on a pandemic-era Holland America Line cruise, we are opting in based upon a few important understandings:

  • We realize that we will be taking a greater risk of catching COVID-19 than we do at home, but we have decided that this risk is worth the benefit of a relaxing vacation together with the reward of a chance to visit foreign destinations long on our wish list(s).
  • We prefer the risk of being cruise ship passengers over that of unmasked air travel for the summer of 2022, especially given recent frequent flight cancellations and spectacular, hours’ long delays reported at major airports worldwide. We don’t have to fly to get to our embarkation/debarkation port, and we won’t have to leave** our cabin once aboard a ship unless we want to.
  • We booked two staterooms for our party of four, and one of them is a suite° with an extra large balcony. This is more space than we have ever paid for in the past, but we believe we might prefer to remain mostly cloistered while at sea, depending upon COVID case rates when and where we sail. We decided we wouldn’t travel without private access to fresh air, i.e., a balcony.
  • We reserved an additional, extra-fee private outdoor space for this sailing—on HAL’s fleet, these are dubbed Cabanas, placed in a restricted access area called the Retreat, and, again, booking one is a first for us—so we will have a dedicated area beyond our cabins to spend time if case rates exceed our comfort thresholds.
  • We’re prepared to skip going ashore at early stops in easily reached ports close to home in order to increase the odds*** we stay healthy for visits to rare, “bucket list” destinations further afield.
  • We’re each packing extra amusements that will allow any one of us to spend days on end alone in a room, and I’ve beefed up the travel medicine kit.
  • And, perhaps most important of all, we are setting sail having decided in advance that even isolating in our staterooms—aside from accessing our cabana via the stairs, no elevators—would be “enough” vacation to make the entire trip worthwhile. Dining on room service and entertaining ourselves on a balcony at sea will be sufficient, if not ideal. If we also get to enjoy the rest of the ship’s public amenities, all the better.

Until our embarkation, we won’t really know which activities will or won’t meet our risk tolerance and feel worthwhile. This is a higher than usual level of uncertainty for me to embrace. I acknowledge I can be prone to anxiety; I’m better known for demanding control than going with the flow.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 1

Living through a pandemic serves to remind me, though, that life is short, and opportunities not taken can be lost forever. We have educated ourselves about the current situation with the virus, and we’ve prepared as best we can for such unpleasant scenarios as believing the risk of infection too high to risk socializing aboard ship or catching COVID at sea.

My kids are growing up fast. One will be moving away from home for the first time in just a couple of months. I want to take us all on one more vacation before it becomes necessary to negotiate with yet another adult life and all its mature entanglements to get away together.Woman hugs child

COVID-19 stole from everyone: lives, time, opportunities… I can’t know for certain that our cruise will be smooth sailing, but, if my analysis is correct, it should be worth the risk.

* Since there is no universal definition for “being careful” with regards to COVID, I’ll post mine. Our household choices in June 2022 continue to include:

  • limiting time inside any building beyond our home with the exception of one child who goes to school/camp in person,
  • wearing masks indoors anywhere but at home,
  • requesting that all visitors or tradespeople entering our home wear a mask,
  • wearing masks outdoors where social distancing isn’t possible,
  • antigen testing the kid who attends school/camp every weekend before he spends one unmasked afternoon per week with his grandfather (otherwise, that kid masks around Grandpa),
  • antigen testing our occasional visitors before eating or drinking with them,
  • only eating or drinking with visitors to our home outdoors or at a distance of ~10+ feet indoors.

We use—and offer those entering our home—several styles of N95, KN94, and surgical masks to ensure all this masking is as efficacious as possible. Even within the family, our faces don’t fit the same masks well.

See the CDC epidemiology paper referenced in paragraph three. The following quote comes from the Discussion section of that report, and it matches what I’ve read elsewhere over the past two years following pandemic news coverage:

“Spatial clustering was not identified on a specific deck or zone, and transmission does not seem to have spread to neighboring cabins, implying that droplet or contact transmission to nearby cabins was not the major mode of infection. Risk of infection did increase with cabin occupancy, but a relatively small proportion of cases in the same cabin had >4 days between their onsets, implying a common source of infection. Beyond that, however, the major transmission routes might include a common source outside the cabin and aerosolized fomite or contact transmission across different deck levels.”

I feel it is only fair to disclose that we had only paid a deposit for a fraction of the total cost, not the full fare for our cancelled 2020 vacation. Wagering many thousands of dollars would have felt foolish to me in support of a corporation, but a few hundred was an amount I could afford to lose with equanimity.

In particular, I found the crew aboard my past HAL sailing to be simultaneously professional and amiable. Keeping this subsidiary of Carnival Corporation in the black seemed likely to keep more of these excellent employees on the payroll during a bleak time.

**Apart from the mandatory muster—or lifeboat—drill. Cruise ships rightly enforce the requirement that every person aboard learns what to do in the unlikely event of an emergency at sea. Due to COVID, these are now conducted with less crowding and standing around in large groups than they used to entail.

°This will be our first experience of the Holland America Line suite category NS, or a Neptune Suite. The corner aft NS we chose is known for its exceptionally large balcony that wraps around the side and back of the ship, offering seating with more likelihood of shade-, sun-, or wind- protection than a standard balcony would.

***Testing positive for COVID-19 aboard a ship means a passenger will be quarantined according to that ship’s specific procedures. On HAL, last I heard, quarantined passengers are required to move to a balcony stateroom in a reserved section of rooms set aside and dedicated to housing those with COVID. On other lines, passengers quarantine in the stateroom they originally booked. In most cases reported by Cruise Critic board members, partners are given the option to stay together or lodge apart assuming only one tests positive.

We aren’t sure what will happen if both parents test positive but the young adults don’t, but we’re ready to live with the consequences either way.

These policies could change at any time, however, and I have read anecdotal evidence of ships adjusting rules on the fly by necessity when more passengers require quarantine than there were dedicated cabins for the sick.

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!