Cruise report: HAL Nieuw Statendam transatlantic with teens

The kids and I sailed with Holland America Line once before, when they were fairly young. Embarking on HAL’s Nieuw Statendam in August 2022 was my husband’s first cruise with this company. We spent 24 days together on this grand vessel, visiting four countries in addition to the United States, and briefly crossing into the Arctic Circle.Certificate signed by Captain Barhorst showing crossing Friday, 8/12/2022 at 20:25

The experience was good enough for us to purchase Future Cruise Credits (FCC)—a minor commitment to future travel with the same company—while still on board.

Link to explanation of FCC’s at The Points Guy site

Our transatlantic (TATL) cruise itinerary called for boarding the ship in Boston, calling in several Canadian ports, followed by stops in Greenland, Iceland, Greenland again, Canada again, France in the form of the island of St. Pierre, Canada third time, then Bar Harbor, Maine, and finally back to Boston.

The round trip itinerary—no flights required from our New England home—absolutely sold us on this particular itinerary. HAL transatlantic cruise itinerary round trip Boston

If we hadn’t had a credit to use from a scheduled 2020 trip cancelled due to the pandemic, it’s unlikely we would have gone anywhere during the rampant snarling of summer travel in 2022. If we’d had an international flight planned, I can guarantee we would have called off any trip as reports of hours’ long lines snaking outside of airports proliferated in the lead up to our departure.

While our cruise wasn’t perfect, the hassles were fairly minimal and we found the experience well worth the bumps in those road that we did encounter.Holland America line vessel, rear view

I plan to publish a series of posts covering ports we visited, but, today, I’ll begin with an overview of embarking on transatlantic travel on HAL as a family with teens. I hope this perspective is helpful to other potential family cruisers since Holland America has a reputation for catering to an elderly crowd.

My kids enjoyed the trip, but there were very few people their age on the ship. We socialized with each other and with adults with whom I’d become acquainted on Cruise Critic prior to the voyage.

In addition to a lack of youth-oriented trip reports, I also couldn’t find much information for travelers with special needs regarding Polar-adjacent travel in the North Atlantic. I live with a chronic condition that sometimes affects my mobility and energy levels. Here’s hoping I can offer relevant tips for future adventurers with similar limitations in this and future posts.

First impressions

As it happens, one of the first SNAFU’s of our trip occurred at its very beginning: embarkation from Boston’s Flynn (formerly Black Falcon) Cruise Port was a mess. More frequent cruisers than I commented later that they’d never endured such a poorly executed boarding elsewhere or in Boston.

Here’s the official Massport site for the cruise terminal.

It’s easy to mock social media and blame it for many of society’s ills, but the utility of crowdsourced information cannot be denied. If I weren’t an active member of Cruise Critic—and a participant in a Roll Call for our August voyage—my embarkation experience could have been even worse. Tips from passengers who arrived at the port earlier than we did saved us at least a couple of hours of unnecessary waiting on site since we could elect to leave our home later to drive to the terminal.

To begin with, HAL sent notification a day ahead of boarding offering a completely revised boarding plan with new times for each passenger, all of which superseded the information given on one’s boarding pass. By not updating boarding passes—offered in digital format for cruise passengers just like most of us use on flights!—Holland America missed an opportunity to reduce confusion instead of sowing it.

Screenshot of HAL's recommended cruise app, NavigatorHAL reaped what it sowed. Thousands of people waited outside for hours beyond the embarkation time on their documents.

Nowhere in their last minute, change-of-plans missive did HAL inform embarking passengers that their digital documents would fail to update to reflect the new instructions. It’s bad to have a communication system that can’t update digital docs in real time; it’s worse not to confess to this fact up front to help reduce confusion!

At least two ambulances were required to whisk away people who weren’t up to the physical demands of standing in line for so long. We were incredibly fortunate that a recent heat wave ended before this marathon queue, but even 80°F became uncomfortable to many, and, while much of the line was shaded by adjacent buildings, there was no other shelter. Almost no seating was available, either.

Purple aluminum HurryCane walking stick freestanding on a wood floorBecause my own mobility limitations wax and wane, I always register a request with common carriers at the time of booking for wheelchair assistance. I’m often well enough to decline the requested service upon arrival at a terminal, but it is harder to get help on demand when it is needed if I haven’t initiated the process in advance. At Boston’s cruise port, it was lucky I was having a pretty good day.

When we arrived at the port, I checked in with an employee and noted we’d requested wheelchair assistance. According to that agent, “So did 1/3 of the people here waiting to board!”

Massport was short by at least dozens of personnel to offer wheelchair assistance. I believe that the lack of “timely assistance” was in violation of U.S. law. It reflected poorly on the port and on the city of Boston.

While the kind Massport employee I’d encountered couldn’t do much for me or anyone else, this lady did find folding chairs for a few of us who were concerned about walking the length of the line that disappeared out of sight across at least two long city blocks. Later arrivals sat on the curb.

My husband and kids trekked to the back of the line, and I waited in tolerable conditions if not comfort with the “special assistance” crowd. It was from that vantage point near the entrance that I saw one woman collapse and get taken away by ambulance.

By the time I boarded, I had yet to see a single passenger escorted onto the ship via wheelchair pushed by port employees. That period of time extended for well over an hour. The fortunate disabled passengers were those traveling with their own mobility aids and friends or family members capable of providing assistance.

After about an hour waiting alone, my family made it to the front of the line where I was sitting. Since no wheelchair assistance passengers were being taken aboard the ship as far as I could see, I rejoined them. My kids took my carry on bag, and I walked myself carefully through the disorganized thicket inside the terminal building with an occasional hand from one of my able-bodied relatives.Embarkation crowdThe gangway with which we boarded Nieuw Statendam was set at a particularly steep angle, too. A fellow passenger said they’d heard that the usual “jet bridge” style boarding ramp for Boston was broken and awaiting repairs, but I have no confirmation for that rumor. I was glad I’d brought my cane to help negotiate boarding, though, fortunately, I didn’t need it much once we were at sea.

Again, according to people who have cruised Boston more than I have, there is a port building here with some features of a modern travel terminal. We were not in that space! Instead, the Nieuw Statendam passengers were being processed in an open, warehouse-like space that might’ve felt familiar to our forebears’ experience at Ellis Island.

The flooring was uneven asphalt, there was no climate control, and there was no reasonable signage to help anyone self-select the correct lines. With various levels of “self check in” one might have performed prior to arriving at the port, there were at least three different types of confirmations that might be required to complete check in on site.

Through dumb luck, we were in the correct line for those who had performed the maximum online steps ahead of time, and we spent only ten to 20 minutes finishing up the check in process before preceding to the gangway that led onto the ship. The new facial recognition software did speed up check in, and, interestingly, could identify ³⁄4 of us with our N95 masks still in place.

One member of the family had to remove a protective mask to be correctly ID’d by the computer.

Some of the confusing requirements befuddling our embarkation day may be laid at the feet of COVID-19. There are national directives demanding certain steps or paperwork, it’s true. Failing to post signage to correctly direct thousands of boarding passengers into the correct lines based upon the status of government and health requirements, however, was entirely the fault of the Flynn Cruise Terminal and its staff.

The communication from HAL that changed boarding times at the last minute stated that a mandatory Coast Guard drill was the cause of the adjustment. That is probably true, but the Coast Guard didn’t prevent HAL from updating information on our virtual boarding passes or within the cruise line’s own app which they tout as an innovation in cruising convenience.

Neither was the Coast Guard responsible for inadequate staffing on the part of Massport, the government agency that runs land-side port operations.

Once we made it on board, the giddy relief of dropping our bags in our beautiful staterooms quickly eased the frustrations of the long morning day. Running the gauntlet of Boston’s cruise terminal was sufficiently exhausting that all of us—even the teens!—spent some part of our first afternoon aboard napping instead of exploring or reveling.

We were told in advance that we would board at 11:40; the port actually seemed to begin embarkation proceedings closer to 14:00 from our vantage amongst the crowds. My first photos from our cabin were taken at 15:45. We were scheduled to sail at 16:00. Nieuw Statendam actually cast off from its Boston mooring at 19:31.

port employees releasing ropes holding Nieuw Statendam to dockI think I’m being generous when I say we experienced a delay of at least three hours. For those who view lunch on the ship as the start of their vacation, our embarkation must have been particularly painful. It was certainly debilitating to those of us with health issues, and proved tiring even to young travelers.

Aside from mentioning that disembarkation three weeks later was similarly hideous—with poor communication again being the element for which HAL itself should be held fully accountable—I won’t go into detail for the latter fiasco. Suffice to say that I will still sail in or out of Boston because “not flying” remains on my list of “good to have” vacation characteristics, but I will always travel through this port carrying as little as possible to preserve my energy, and I will assume zero mobility assistance will be offered regardless of what’s legally mandated or promised.

I cannot, in good conscience, recommend embarking on a cruise out of Boston’s port for anyone with severe mobility restrictions at this time unless that person can afford to travel with sufficient personal assistance to cover all boarding needs. I hope the situation will improve if staffing levels recover, but I wouldn’t bet a friend or loved one’s comfort on it personally.

Also, on the subject of advance communication, I think it is worth pointing out that Holland America Line mandated the wearing of masks indoors, when not eating or drinking, for all passengers as well as crew for the duration of our sailing. This was not announced in advance of embarkation, though it could have been. The captain announced the policy on board the ship, and reminders were broadcast by him and other officers once or twice a day over the public address system.Disposable surgical mask

Most destinations, and all excursions, appeared to have dropped all COVID prevention rules or requirements, though the majority of our fellow travelers opted to wear masks on the one tour bus we joined.

Our group enjoyed a much greater degree of relaxation and feelings of safety due to the enhanced precautions, but some cruisers felt deceived and complained bitterly about the unexpected need to mask. At least one Cruise Critic member in my Roll Call group bragged about “always carrying a drink” in order to intentionally and spitefully subvert the protocols as much as possible.

Most Nieuw Statendam passengers appeared to make a sincere effort to adhere to the mask rules, in our personal experience on the ship. We elected to exceed HAL’s requirements, and we all avoided catching COVID-19, testing negative on our own home tests multiple times during and after the journey. There were reports of viral spread on the ship, however, and visibility of guests in isolation increased over time.

We believe that it was possible for cruise passengers to make personal choices to increase the odds of avoiding getting sick, but that the mask mandate made it many times easier for cautious travelers to do than it would have been otherwise. For example, I would have felt far less comfortable without the face covering requirement when I squeezed onto any of the crowded ship’s tenders required to visit the smaller ports on which we called.

Our family felt fortunate that HAL mandated masks; other passengers felt cheated out of the freedom they thought they’d been promised on the same voyage. Continue reading

Chocolate cake recipe adapted for GoSun solar oven (gluten free)

Last year, I wrote about my favorite fuel-free cooking appliances. One of them is a GoSun Sport model solar oven that I use right on the balcony, just a step outside my kitchen. It’s a space too narrow for safe use of a full size gas or charcoal grill even if I were comfortable cooking on a fire.

Saratoga Jacks 5.5L thermal cooker next to goSun Sport solar ovenIf you’re anything like me, investing in a solar oven for summer cooking without heating up the kitchen leads you right to the need for an adapted chocolate cake recipe to suit it.

Here’s a peek at one of the mini cakes I managed on my first attempt.Sun oven baked mini chocolate cake about two fingers wide and a finger long

We’re “enjoying” the first heat wave of the season just a few days into meteorological* summer, but the kids and I had a hankering for sweets.

It is 100% accurate that I have questioned the need to ever eat—let alone cook—hot meals once the thermometer reads about 75º F. Sorry, kids! Then again, my interest in baked goods rarely wanes even while the mercury rises.

ReallyWonderfulThings.me GoSun Sport adapted chocolate cake recipe (Gluten Free)

Here’s a printable PDF copy of the recipe Sun Oven GF chocolate mug cake adaptation by willo for ReallyWonderfulThings.me.Picture view of solar baked cake recipe

Observant readers may notice that I forgot to add the chocolate chips to the batch I photographed for this post. The result will be delicious either way. Continue reading

Service jobs were already underpaid & risky; no wonder workers don’t rush back

My family owned a small business that grew from two to eight stores during my adolescence. By the time I graduated from college, I had over a decade of work experience in retail sales, pulling orders in our small warehouse, and doing the office work supporting such an enterprise.

I grew up grateful for never having to take a job at McDonald’s to gain that first professional experience. My highly intelligent peers attending some of the best colleges in America took summer jobs as hotel maids and washers of cars on auto lots while I was already in high demand with data entry and database management skills by my late teens.

I had the great good fortune of being “the bosses’ daughter” when I took shifts behind the register in our stores, safe in the knowledge that no complaint from a customer would ever get me fired. That didn’t prevent me from seeing how precarious employment could be for minimum wage clerks and servers less favored by nepotism and auspicious birth.Pile of money

Extensive firsthand experience in retail has informed my behavior towards customer service employees ever since.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve taken pains to tip well as we’ve ordered in our groceries and occasional meals—usually double what I would have paid before March 2020, but always more than any app’s minimum. When I read about the Trader Joe’s employee fired for asking management’s permission to deny service to customers who refused to wear masks indoors, I immediately wrote to the company in support of the worker’s position. I haven’t shopped at Trader Joe’s since.

Though the pandemic may finally be waning, I continue to go out of my way to patronize companies who’ve made firm commitments—and taken more visible steps—to protect vulnerable front line employees against COVID-19 itself and from abuse by customers who don’t believe in science or follow government mandates regarding public health.

Here’s a May 1st Globe article about restaurant employees exhausted by “enforcement fatigue” due to their role as the unofficial police of health mandates for diners.

Last week, after government figures were released showing a reluctance on the part of the unemployed to return to service jobs, every major paper* seemed to run op-eds and articles pondering why workers aren’t flocking back to staff restaurants and hotels. People whom I’m guessing have never worked in service seem to sincerely believe that overly generous unemployment benefits are a primary cause of this phenomenon.

The fact that these jobs pay low wages is usually mentioned, though, as is the reality that many working parents are still required at home due to school and day care closures.

Lower income parents are realistically facing the truth that their children, like themselves, face outsized risks at returning to in-person learning inside overcrowded schools with above average local case positivity rates for COVID-19. People of color are tending to keep their children home and continue remote learning at higher than average rates in my region, probably for this reason. I have yet to see this factor noted in news coverage of the unemployment issue.

What strikes me about almost every article is the near total lack of awareness of just how terrible service work can be. It isn’t just low pay keeping the unemployed away, but the enormous physical and mental costs associated with taking that work.

From the Washington Post:

“‘Employers are hungry for candidates, but job seekers don’t seem to have noticed that yet,’ said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.

But workers are still hesitant to return, partly because they want to wait until they are vaccinated first and partly because they are discouraged after months of not getting any callbacks, says Pollak.”

I find this economist’s lack of insight into the rationale for the choices of these service workers baffling. They “haven’t noticed” job openings? I sincerely doubt that.

Realistically, the unemployed are weighing the risks of exposure to a dangerous virus which sickens them in greater proportion than it does their better-off managers vs. the paltry rewards of minimum wage in exchange for a constant barrage of abuse from the public.

The cost-benefit analysis seems obvious when the choice is below-sustenance wages vs. the risk of long term disability or even death from coronavirus. If I couldn’t afford to be out of work for weeks or months, I, too, would delay—as long as I possibly could—returning to service while persistent infirmity and death strike many thousands** of Americans every day.

Remember, these are the U.S. citizens least likely to have any paid sick time available to them. Only about one third of the lowest paid wage workers do, whereas the majority of those of us earning in the top 50%—sufficient to accrue an emergency fund—also enjoy the financial protection of paid time off.

Employers must face the fact that some of the lowest legal wages in America—a pathetic $2.13 per hour for tipped employees—are being offered to people with the highest odds of confronting unmasked customers with no recourse for self-defense: restaurant servers.

Best practices asks diners to cover their faces while staff is nearby; real world conditions never adhere perfectly to best practices. And then, a sizeable minority of Americans refuses to even acknowledge the risk they impose on servers through callous disregard of mask mandates where those rules are even still in force. Disposable surgical mask

Many COVID-19 believers themselves now act with selfish entitlement after receiving vaccines, ignoring the reality that no one knows if they could still infect people around them while basking, unmasked, in their own newfound protection.

Referencing the same Post article I mentioned above, at least one expert came closer to realizing the truth I find so obvious:

“Others say the reason workers without college degrees aren’t flooding back into restaurants and hospitality jobs is because the pay is too low.

‘We should be asking how we got to a place where service sector wages are so low and benefits are so nonexistent and workplaces are so unsafe and scheduling practices are so volatile that a mere $300 per week [on unemployment] may be better than the financial benefits and security of a job,’ tweeted Elizabeth Pancotti, a senior analyst on the Democratic-led Senate Budget Committee.”

(bolded emphasis on the coordinating conjunctions in this quote is mine)

Frankly, I’m gratified to see that an analyst for the Senate Budget Committee appears to have a better grasp on real world conditions for America’s working class clerks and servers than the labor economist at a recruiting company. I see that as evidence that someone in my government is doing her job.

Before the life-or-death threat of a pandemic, the reality was that a clerk in a shop or a server in a restaurant was treated as less than human during almost every shift.

When I last worked retail circa 2003, it was already common for customers to throw items onto the counter at my register, chatting on a cell phone and ignoring my presence except to shove a credit card or a handful of bills in my direction without any acknowledgement that I was there. I imagine the further proliferation of smart phones has made that kind of rudeness even more frequent.

I made the observation to co-workers at the time that these same people are probably the ones who complain if their calls are answered by machines when they try to contact large corporations.Contact phone

If the customers in a purely discretionary, higher end business like ours treated someone like me so poorly, it’s probable that conditions are abominable for those without my advantages.

As a teen selling beauty products, I was relatively well educated, mannerly, protected by a pale complexion and all the obvious signs of middle class economic status, never mind the confidence of being part of the ownership of our family business. At the bookstore, years later, my husband’s secure professional career sheltered me from any cost that could be incurred by protecting my dignity when customers behaved badly.

Let me add at this point that I sincerely enjoy working in customer service!

I get a charge out of delighting someone by finding what they want on my shelves. I like hearing the small stories behind someone’s search for an item in my inventory. I take pride in my ability to cope under the pressure of lines at my register, handling even a Christmas rush or malfunctioning equipment with aplomb.

For those of us who sincerely love people, there’s an instant dopamine hit of reward when you make someone happy, satisfying reasonable customers by furnishing them with what is needed or wanted. I’d always wished to work in a bookstore, and I joyfully recommended titles to interested shoppers while I did. I’ve known many healthcare workers and food service employees similarly delighted to nurture others via “caregiving” careers.

I was very good at front-facing customer service work, but, still, certain aspects of it were always dark and demoralizing.

About weekly, I would encounter a customer difficult enough that my heart would race and my body would enter an adrenaline-charged fight or flight state. And, again, I was a socially privileged person working in a well-staffed chain store in an upper middle class, suburban shopping center or a busy mall. I can’t speak to conditions in mom and pop establishments in rougher neighborhoods.

I was never robbed on the job thank God, but I did experience fear for my personal safety on numerous occasions. I faced decisions about flagrant theft, mentally ill repeat patrons, one of whom began to cross lines of appropriateness in a sexual manner in our store, and many, many customers who felt entitled to raise voices and use crude language, for example, in response to strict return policies though such policies were clearly posted and printed on receipts in accordance with state law.

It was in spite of the regular—though, admittedly, perpetrated by a small minority—dangers and degradation of dealing with the public that I opted to return to retail sales when I left my last engineering role after 9/11 but before I had my first child. Even occasional angry or violent agitators can wield outsize influence on an employee’s sense of well-being

Those of us who could step behind a counter to avoid grabby customers with wandering hands have always enjoyed more protection from unwanted sexual attention than waitresses required to come within arm’s-length of their patrons as they set down plates of food. When you’re close enough touch a diner’s tabletop, you are also within range of any airborne virus, not to mention those “Russian hands” and “Roman fingers” attempting to cop a feel.

Safety goggles, cloth face mask, and disposable gloves

Reports abounded throughout 2020 of customers ignoring health restrictions such as mask mandates, berating and even becoming violent with service employees for asking them to comply with rules designed to protect everyone. These new insults must be added to the already poor working conditions that have always afflicted servers and clerks.

Partisan politics prevented some police departments from enforcing health mandates even when staffing levels did not, yet customer-facing service workers were already subject to dehumanization and harassment before health-related risk mitigation tactics became politicized. Even shoplifters and aggressive customers didn’t guarantee a timely visit from the authorities in my experience over a decade ago.

Employees will return to vacant jobs when the conditions and wages offered meet or exceed the risk of illness and harassment inherent to each role. There’s no mystery. Anyone who’s worked in service could explain the situation to those confused journalists and politicians, yet most of those would be amazed how rarely anyone thinks to lend an ear to the ubiquitous essential workers catering to us all.

Researching this post, I discovered a Business Insider article stating that the Trader Joe’s employee in question was rehired about a week later, possibly due to the furor on social media that ensued from his firing. I might shop there again in the future, but am personally unlikely to revisit this decision until pandemic restrictions have been lifted. As of April 27, hundreds of Americans per day are still dying of COVID-19, and tens of thousands are being diagnosed with it. Offering your employees safer working conditions only when public pressure forces you to do so does not speak to corporate values I want to support.

* Further examples from Boston Globe and the New York Times

** My reasoning for assuming thousands per day risk long term disability and death is as follows: For 29 April 2021, the New York Times reports 51,465 new COVID-19 cases and 697 deaths. A study reported in February 2021 that the percentage of coronavirus sufferers who go on to experience long term, debilitating symptoms is about 33%. One third of 51,465 new cases would suggest 17,154 “long COVID” (a.k.a., post-acute sequelae SARS-CoV-2 infection or PASC) are likely.

Screen shot of calculatorOne reason I’ve avoided working in food service—since a mandatory stint in my college dining hall as part of my financial aid package—or in health care is that those products are actually essential for life. The stakes, therefore, can be sky high, potentially justifying extreme behavior on the part of the guest. I’m unaware of anyone every dying due to a lack of professional brand shampoo.

Similarly, when I took a job at a bookstore, it helped me to keep my cool in the face of irate customers to acknowledge that their desire to buy a particular book was simply not a life or death situation… except, perhaps, if they sought a first aid manual!

Expressing gratitude for delivery drivers with snacks

In March, I hung a sign on our mailbox, thanking the postman* for working as a then-unknown virus blossomed in our metro area from hundreds of cases to thousands over the course of a few weeks.

Most of us were sheltering in place; he faced the world every day. He’s a gentleman who looks to be approaching retirement age. I wanted him to know his service to our community was not going unnoticed.

Green foam sheet saying Happy Holidays & Thank You to essential delivery workersHere are photos of my new, similar-to-what-I’m-talking-about, winter Happy Holidays gratitude sign. The first one was pink with flowers in honor of the approaching spring. Also flowers, like the holly I’ve sketched here, are easy to draw even without artistic talent. Both were drawn with Sharpie marker on EVA foam construction material to withstand the elements.

Though I’d exchanged pleasantries with our mailman pretty regularly, and friendly waves often, he took time from his rounds to come to our door and acknowledge our well wishes. Our letter carrier told me he’d posted a picture of our little sign to his social media, he felt so touched. He wanted other postal workers to see that people cared.

It mattered, to our most regular delivery driver, that we had made an effort on his behalf.

Thanksgiving give thanks - 1The pandemic has raged on, waning over the summer here in New England, and waxing again under the current punishment of the second wave. Essential workers carry on, and delivery drivers are keeping my family—which includes two septuagenarians with pre-existing conditions and a child with asthma—fed, medicated, and able to enjoy many of the usual trappings of the winter holidays we celebrate.

Without these men and women, business would grind to a complete halt. Never mind those of us who choose and can afford to shop from home; without deliveries, there would be no parts to assemble in factories, no flow of goods or services, no products to buy on the shelves for those who still prefer to visit stores in person.

Delivery drivers are the pulsing lifeblood of modern society. I’m grateful for every one of them, for showing up at work, for keeping our economy functioning, for taking on personal risk to allow me to protect the vulnerable members of my family.

Words alone can’t express the depth of my gratitude!

Winter/Xmas/Hanukkah decorated box of snacks with note of thanks to delivery driversHere’s one tangible way that I’m saying thank you to the drivers who serve my community.

I got the idea for putting out snacks from the internet. I decorated the box with scraps of wrapping paper in hopes the festive decoration would lift spirits while the calories in the snacks nourish bodies. I tried to include a mixture of sweets, savory, and tangerines for a bit of healthy.

Gratitude sign text: Delivery drivers, please take any snack you like as a token...I was a little surprised, actually, by how easily I found an array of grab-and-go snacks in my pantry. The cessation of packed school lunches has left me with more “extra” individual serving items than I might have in normal times. Some of these items were included in a gift basket from a colleague, the cereal was one type in a multi-pack that my family didn’t go for, the kosher doughnut came in a Hanukkah Cheer package we received from a local Jewish group.

Pile of moneyThe internet—and the official sites for the United States Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS—offers conflicting advice on whether and how one may tip professional delivery drivers. Officially, cash seems to be a no-no, or at least strongly discouraged; off the record, I know some drivers sometimes accept gratuities of money or gift cards.

espresso with foam art served with sparkling waterIf I were going out, I might buy a dozen or so small denomination gift cards for places like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts that abound in our area. $5 cards to drive thru restaurants seem reasonable, but I hesitate to offer gift cards that may be against the rules for drivers to accept.

I suspect they would be taken, and appreciated, if I had some to leave out; I’m just rule-abiding, perhaps to a fault, but I offer the idea to my renegade readers.

Insulated thermal carafes labeled Hot Water and CoffeeI wish I could think of a hygienic way to offer a warm drink on cold days right at my door, but leaving out a flask of hot coffee seems unappealing while a contagious virus is circulating.

goSun oven bake cookies from prepared dough - 4If my snacks go quickly and appear popular, I may also try home baked items I don’t know if drivers would risk a homemade muffin in a baggie, but I’m comfortable with the waste if those go untouched. I’d rather keep offering something rather than nothing if my packaged options dwindle. I’ve committed to shopping as rarely as possible as our hospitals fill and COVID-19 case counts continue to rise in our region.

If you’d like to do something similar, I’ve uploaded a PDF of my gratitude sign. Feel free to print it and use it yourself, or adapt it in any way you’d like. I laminated mine because I have a plethora of home business equipment, but a sheet protector offers some protection from the elements, and even a layer of tape extends the life of paper in light rain.

It isn’t important exactly what you do. But, if possible, find some way to thank the delivery drivers making daily life possible in your area. Every one of us has been touched by their contributions.

* The same person who has routinely delivered our mail for many years at this address. I’m thinking of a particular man, hence my choice of the gendered job title.

I wish I had some single serve drinks to include, but my feelings about wasteful packaging keep me from buying many of those. I didn’t have any on hand to include. Any beverage I might offer would have to be schlepped to my house by a delivery driver; is the lugging of liquids worth it in this case? I’ll admit; I’m a bit conflicted on that point.

I would affix a label matching my home address to offer confidence I wasn’t a creeper, up to no good, trying to poison someone!

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!