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!

A Tale of 3 Trousers: Lightweight kids’ pants for carry-on family travel

I have yet to find any company marketing lightweight, quick dry, travel friendly clothing for kids. Can I be the only parent who prefers to fly light?

Children’s relatively small clothes do pack up more easily than those of a big and tall man, but choosing wisely makes a noticeable difference in the total volume and weight of luggage for a family of four or more.

In my experience, many kids also get dirtier than adult travelers. The ability to wash a garment in a sink and have it dry overnight is vital for happy travels with my own sons.

Today, I’ll compare three pairs of lightweight trousers marketed for boys in Medium an American child’s size 10-12. My criteria for this search included:

  • lightweight fabric suitable for summer travel
  • neutral color that can be dressed up or down
  • quick dry fiber suitable for hotel sink laundering.

With apparently no one setting out to design “travel clothing” for children, the best approximation I’ve found for the lower body is “hiking pants.” Many options on the market were excluded for my purposes because the outdoor companies really love “convertible” trousers with zip-off lower legs.

Zippered knees never pass for dressy in my opinion.

I ended up with the following specific styles, ordered from REI and Amazon.com at the prevailing retail prices of mid-May 2019. And all are still being sold as of February 2020.

Links go to the manufacturers’ own listings for the first and third pairs that aren’t store brands regardless of where I purchased my pairs.

First, the good news. If I had been in a hurry and purchased just one pair, any of these dark grey trousers would work for my son as daily wear pants that could pass as “decent” clothing to wear out to dinner on vacation. Note: I wouldn’t have him wear these to a wedding or a truly elegant occasion unless we’d had a drastic wardrobe catastrophe and had no time to shop for proper formal wear.

As one would hope from quality hiking clothing made by well-known brands, all are sturdy, well-sewn, and free of obvious defects.

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Have Segway; will travel… into the Alps

My first Segway tour of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was a lot of fun and well worth the fairly high hourly cost. My second Segway tour, along an Alpine trail from the Austrian resort town Seefeld in Tirol, was positively magnificent.

At €78 per person for a two hour tour, the cost of entry was lower. With the option to follow a scenic trail to a kitschy-charming Alpine inn otherwise closed to me due to pain and fatigue, the experience turned out to be invaluable.

Training to use Segway

Segway training before a tour takes between five and 20 minutes

My teen said this excursion was the most fun thing he did during our two weeks in Europe. And, by the way, I let him select most of our activities after I chose the cities we would visit.

Maybe I shouldn’t tell the friendly owner-operator Maximilian this, but I would have paid a lot more for such a wonderful experience. If you find yourself in Seefeld, definitely give him a call and take one of his Segway scooters for a spin!

I discovered Segway Tirol on TripAdvisor, but here’s the website and contact email: info@segway-tirol.info *

I’m extolling the virtues of the Segway today because I live with chronic pain as part and parcel of an autoimmune condition. Aside from arthritis, I also broke a bone in the sole of one foot many years ago… and now it feels like I’m always walking with a pebble in my shoe. I.e., annoying

Before my foot injury, my major occupation when visiting new places was to wander. I could happily lose myself for hours along the twisting byways of an historic city. I don’t enjoy driving, and I hate doing it in an unfamiliar, crowded place.

Public transit is hit and miss for me. I’ll use it, but unfamiliar fare systems provoke anxiety. Did I stamp my ticket correctly? Do I have exact change? With buses, I fear taking the wrong line; on subways, I compulsively check the map at each stop to confirm I’ve headed in the correct direction.

I also fear not getting a seat and falling down on lurching trains and buses. At times—sometimes unexpectedly—my weak hand and wrist joints won’t cooperate with my clinging to a post. Then again, I don’t appear deserving of special treatment or priority seating. Autoimmune conditions are often invisible to the casual glances of strangers.

I prefer the freedom and pace of walking… but I can’t go very far by foot any more.

Riding a Segway scooter does require one to stand. It wouldn’t be suitable for anyone with major foot or knee, or ankle problems. My pain seems to be exacerbated by the striking motion of stepping, however, so standing on the Segway is pretty much all right, most of the time.

I do have days where even my knees are affected by my arthritis, but most of my issues, most often, involve the small joints in my hands and feet. I wouldn’t try to ride a Segway if I were having a major flare, but the fatigue would probably stop me before joint stiffness anyway.

Stepping aboard a Segway scooter is like stepping back to a healthier, more able time and condition for me. It feels like freedom.

Mobility is a key component of personal empowerment. That’s true for the ability to afford a car in many American suburbs, and even more so for the giant leap from total dependence upon others or being housebound to the liberty of self-conducted, autonomous activity for those who can’t walk in the average way.

You get a taste of the utility of curb cuts, ramps, and automatic doors as a parent pushing a baby stroller, but it is hard to appreciate all the little motions a healthy body allows until some aspect of “what’s typical” is removed from your arsenal.

I didn’t stop grinning for a single moment I was aboard Segway Tirol’s scooter. The scenery was beautiful. The guide was kind and accommodating. Mostly, though, I was exhilarated to be conducting myself along an Alpine path without pain or fear of going too far and then succumbing to fatigue in an inconvenient place.

Some people think Segways are goofy looking toys for nerds; others consider them a sidewalk nuisance that should be banned. I’d guess most of those people are fully physically able and have no idea how poor the options are for those who aren’t.

For myself, I will be spending more time on two low, gyroscopically balanced, electrically powered Segway wheels in the future. I will seek out tours and rentals of these stable, easily controlled mobility devices. I may look goofy, but I will be grinning like a fiend.

It’s hard not to be happy when you’ve been set free.

Around $150 pp for 90 minutes, if memory serves.

*I booked our tour just the day before we took it. Maximilian was quick to respond and very flexible. Our “group” was just the two of us. There was no upcharge for the creation of a tour at our convenience!

Need vs. nostalgia: what do I really want to carry?

While the topic of downsizing, “right” sizing, or minimizing one’s possessions is a vast and multi-faceted one, it is also something that constantly surprises me by inserting itself into my life, unbidden. It isn’t always obvious where these questions will pop up.

I am not aiming for minimalism. I do recognize that I struggle with some types of possessions. Who owns whom? I also believe firmly in frequent self-reflection about assumptions, and modern consumer culture offers so many “necessary” items to question.

I examine my life. It keeps it worth living. (Apologies to Socrates. Sometimes I can’t resist the low hanging fruit.)

Today, we pulled the tent out of storage. We are prepping for upcoming camping trips, and I wanted a dry run, test-fitting the packing of some new equipment with the old. Don’t be surprised when I write about tents and sleeping comfort in coming weeks.

Amongst the random outdoors items on the camping shelf was a plastic shaving mirror with a hanging hook. Not tiny, but sized to view one’s face, I bought this mirror before my first overnight in a New England campground. If memory serves, DH and I were merely dating, and we went to a Connecticut state campground with some of my work friends. This would be about 20 years ago.

At that stage of my life, I owned a sleeping bag, but no other camping equipment. DH had a tent, I think, and we went to a liquidation/warehouse store to buy some outdoorsy odds and ends. We didn’t go with much more than a minimal structure (tent), sleeping pads and bags, and a scant few dishes and items for cooking meat directly over flame.

I didn’t want to have very much camping “stuff.” I had a notion that time outdoors could be spent with more joy and less unloading, and I wanted to do the experiment.

You see, I grew up going camping by my parents’ rules. Let’s just describe them as people who like their stuff. We went camping in our Volkswagen bus, and it would be stuffed to the roof with equipment for every eventuality. After my dad bought his boat, that, too, would be loaded to the gills.

Arriving at a campground meant being late (due to lengthy loading times), suffering whisper-yelling in the dark about holding the flashlight still while Dad attempted to erect a tent he couldn’t see, and discovering it is possible to put things in the “wrong” place on a tiny patch of land on which you’ve never before set foot. Setting up camp was stressful!

It seemed like there was probably a more enjoyable way to start an otherwise wonderful vacation, and I am happy to report that my way does work better for me.

Most of my simplifications involved ditching kitchen equipment, but, then, I don’t cook for pleasure. I didn’t even attempt to replicate most of the specialized equipment deemed vital for the camping trips of my childhood, but I did buy this plastic mirror. I’m not sure I’ve ever used it, but I’ve diligently hung it near the tent in every campsite since.

Today, I’m wondering why? Why the mirror, in particular?

Mirror camp - 1Because we always brought a certain plastic mirror on my childhood camping trips. It would be unthinkable to leave it behind (it would need to be replaced locally if it weren’t present.) That was (and is) my parents’ approach to their various habits of stuff. I think my dad used their mirror for shaving, but my husband has a beard, so no similar need exists.

Why did I buy a mirror, when I didn’t buy a small table, folding chairs, a Coleman stove, or so many other things? Why does the mirror still get packed, even appearing on my camping packing checklist? Why, holding it in my hands today, contemplating it long and hard enough to prompt the effort of a blog post, do I still think a mirror belongs in my camping kit?

I sincerely do not know, but, upon reflection (ahem!), it will probably continue to join us on all of our family car camping trips. It feels right, somehow, to include it, and I can’t see any harm in having it along.

When I approach minimalism, realize that I am coming from an upbringing better described as “maximalism.” There are some comforts gained by having everything at hand, just in case, and there are costs to that habit. I try to be aware of both, and weigh them appropriately for different situations.

Sometimes, some items are more accurately analyzed by feeling than thinking. That’s a problem when it leads to hoarding garbage and living amongst impassable piles of stuff, but it’s usually fine when it refers to a personal treasure providing a sense of abundance, or preparation, or even simple nostalgia for the beholder.

I’m going to claim my little mirror as the latter.

Do you have any “magical” items that you routinely pack for certain kinds of travel? I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s found such an unlikely talisman in their otherwise sensible packing list!