Coronavirus diary: news habits, arguments about grocery shopping, & the Waldorf school goes online

I am in the morbid habit of checking the U.S. total cases number first thing in the morning. I turn off the alarm on my phone, load the NY Times’ map, and look for the total number. Then I scroll down to the bar graph of new daily cases, as if I don’t already know that the virus is continuing its growth curve upward. Last week I even started my own spreadsheet, because I couldn’t find a graph anywhere that would both let me see the daily growth factor and let me make my own projections.

And yet, my daily news consumption has actually plateaued - even declined a bit from its peak a few weeks ago. After my partner and I made the decision to come back from Mexico early, and to get the kids, and to shelter in place, the news stopped being as useful to me. What, for example, was I meant to do with the news that Boris Johnson has it? Or that the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed?

This is the mental exercise: read general news; feel generalized stress and anxiety course through you; try to move on with your day. If I don’t fill my days with projects, I will default to news consumption, which, at this point, is just not helpful.

Arguments about groceries

The central argument between my partner and I, which we have had now at least half a dozen times: when should we go to the grocery store? Is running out of oatmeal a good enough reason? How about running out of butter?

I’m sure we’re not alone. My sister in New Zealand is having this same discussion with her husband. Me, her, and probably 100 million other couples around the world are having some version of the same discussion. Should we go for more staples, or simply make do?

In my house we have jar upon jar of preserved apple sauce, blackberry jam, and bread & butter pickles. Not exactly the three foods I would have picked to live off during the apocalypse, but actually not too bad in terms of nutritional value. But fresh veggies they are not.

The argument is about more than making do, though. It’s also about gaming out worse scenarios than even the current one. What if the food supply chain breaks down? What if all the truck drivers get sick? What if all the shelf stockers call out? Shouldn’t we go now, again, just to stock up some more?

There are six people in the house, one of whom, a teenage boy, eats like a locust. So even in normal circumstances, a weekly shopping trip would be a lot of food to haul home. Last year, when we had the three kids at home, we would be at Trader Joe’s twice a week. A bag of bagels would be gone in a day. One dinner is two pounds of pasta, and even then they get hungry later on.

I’ve done some intermittent fasting over the last year, so I’m thinking I could be good for three days on just one of those jars of apple sauce. But for a normally functioning household used to having fresh parmesan in the fridge this is a bit of a change indeed. We don’t know who exactly bought those three different plastic green things of parmesan-like substance in the pantry, but now that’s all we’ve got. We’ve draped it over big batches of pasta and last night we coated the defrosted chicken wings in it, and I can report that whatever that powder is does in fact taste like something resembling parmesan.

On about the fourth argument we had over the food supply, we decided to take an inventory and actually count everything. So inventory we did:

After that, we knew we had at least two weeks on hand.

My partner and I have come to some kind of resolution on the shopping. She went to pick up some things - but all the food stayed in the tool shed for three days before we brought it in. Then, a few days later, we were able to replenish our egg supply from the veterinarian down the road who keeps chickens and ducks and puts their eggs out in a cooler in her driveway for purchase on the honor system.

Meanwhile, my greatest priority in life, it seems, is to find some glass to build a cold frame so we can start some fresh greens in the garden. But the ReStore is closed - not an essential business - so yesterday I got on Facebook marketplace and found an option 20 minutes down the road, in the three-level, 4,000-square foot barn of an old hoarder with stuff dating back five decades.

“What do you collect?” he asked as I snaked my way through heaps of old items taller than me. “Nothing,” I replied.

The windows will need a deep clean, but at least now we can build the cold frame.

The Waldorf school goes online

The first time my kid’s Waldorf school held a Zoom call with parents there was a minor revolt.

The background is that Waldorf generally eschews technology as a learning tool. The curriculum, especially in the early years, is largely play-based. They don’t have screens in the classroom, and one time they even tried to get every parent at the school to agree to a no-screen policy for kid play dates and sleepovers. The no-screen thing is why a lot of parents are attracted to Waldorf in the first place.

Anyway, all that has gone out the window, and fast.

The Zoom call with my kid’s third-grade teacher worked fine from a technical perspective, no small feat considering the teacher told us she’d never used Zoom in her life. It was her plan for educating our kids remotely that led to a small parent insurrection.

Held at 3pm on a Tuesday (as if none of the parents actually worked for a living), it started with one of the dads. The plan called for teacher to email parents all the worksheets, descriptions of activities, and instructions, and let the parents print it all out and supervise their completion. “Does everyone have a color printer?” she tried to confirm over the video feed.

The dad had a more fundamental issue than color printing: why was all this responsibility for teaching and supervision being turned over to the parents, he asked.

“Seeing that this Zoom works perfectly and I can hear you loud and clear, I can imagine [my son] sitting at this desk listening” he said, noting that, since he actually had three kids at the school, who were now all at home, he and his wife were just basically “out of luck.”

The teacher responded that indeed the plan to have parents supervise was “based on the pedagogical impulse in the school that we really don’t want children on screens,” a conclusion that had been reached after “a long discussion” in the preceding days among faculty and administration.

That opened up the floodgates.

Other parents began chiming in that they supported the dad, and considering the circumstances, they didn’t really mind if the kids had a bit more screen time. One mom told the teacher that she was also in a household with two working parents: “I’d rather have [my son] watching you on Zoom, instead of watching a show or a movie because I have a work call.”

Screen time was going to happen, regardless. It was just a matter of whether the kid was watching the teacher on Zoom or whether they were watching The Mandalorian on Disney+.

To her credit, teacher polled the rest of the parents, asked everyone’s opinion, and said she would take it as feedback for the administration.

As I watched all this unfolding, I recalled the earlier emails we’d gotten from the school, as they had first closed to do a deep clean, out of “an abundance of caution,” because one of the school’s families had been at a party with someone who later tested positive, and then as they announced the longer closure, following in the footsteps of Maryland public schools.

One of those early emails had asked parents what materials they had on hand:

So that we can partner with you during the next two weeks, please let us know if you DO NOT have access to the following equipment and/or supplies at home:

Grade 3

  • Crayons and colored pencils (any kind)

  • Beeswax

  • Water color paints and paint brushes (any kind)

  • Scrap fabrics or yarn; other craft materials 

  • Paper 

  • Internet access

  • A device through which your child could listen to a digital audio recording

  • A device on which you (parent) could watch a video sent to you by a teacher

  • Parent access to a printer either at home or at work 

You do not need to go out and purchase these supplies. This is only for our information at this time.

By then, my kid was already in New Hampshire with me, and the answer was no, we did not have any beeswax on hand. I didn’t write back to let them know of our lack of beeswax. Somehow a single parent writing to inform school administration of their lack of beeswax just didn’t seem important at the moment. And so we soldier on… without any beeswax.

The emails continued to pour in, as I’m sure they have to parents everywhere, except our emails were unusually focused on crafts, and how the school was preparing our kids to do them. Another early email informed us that teachers had been making heroic efforts to prepare bags of crafts materials that parents could come pick up from school and then take home for later projects.

Except even that hit a snag when the “handwork” teacher said she was having trouble identifying whose knitting project was whose, and could parents “please ask your child to describe what they are making and what the color(s) are.” And so I dutifully asked my kid and then replied that he had been working on a hat with red trim and a blue cap.

Soon the emails became more substantive: reading, writing, and math. Daily work plans. Worksheets which, despite the teacher’s hand-drawn flowers surrounding the page, did indeed have division and multiplication problems. Lists of spelling words. Instructions for journaling.

Then there was the directive from his Spanish teacher to have the kids “make a shopping list, by picture only, of the fruits they would like to include in a class fruit salad.” No actual writing or speaking of Spanish, mind you. Just a drawing:

On the first line they might draw 5 little bananas.  Underneath, they might draw 4 oranges in a line. Next, they might draw 1 pineapple. Next they might draw 25 cherries, etc.

The idea was that my kid could then try to think of the Spanish words for the numbers in his head, if he could remember them. The instructions went on for several hundred words.

But I must give Waldorf some credit. For a school so resistant to technology, they’ve managed to roll with a lot of punches. Every day, I synthesize about 5-7 emails from teacher with various instructions (brevity is no one’s strength over there) and I print out the instructions and worksheets.

For several days the school tried, and failed, to deliver instructions for making a doll out of corn husks. Not that we have corn husks, but that didn’t stop the school from sending out at least half a dozen emails, follow-ups, apologies, and updates as to the status of the delivery of the instructional videos which our kids were supposed to follow. Alas, I cannot give a full accounting of The Great Corn Husk Doll Fiasco of 2020, because in truth I stopped paying attention to any email which mentioned them.

Three weeks in, our routine has settled. After our morning walk, the kid sits down and does his work. Two hours later, he’s done, and we move on to projects around the house, baking, board games, and at night family movies. One weekend, my mom taught garden planning and we collectively decided what we’d be planting this Spring. Math the day before had taken 30 minutes. Garden planning took three hours:

Meanwhile, Montgomery County Public Schools haven’t quite gotten around to launching an online learning program, despite the fact that schools closed three weeks ago. The first two weeks were just supposed to be temporary, and, perhaps rightly, the district’s main focus was on delivering school lunches to as many students as possible.

But after a few days it was clear the closure could drag on for months, and only now are they beginning to roll out a plan. Public schools have a lot of regulatory requirements - they have to deliver education that is accessible to kids with disabilities, for example, or face lawsuits about equal opportunity. Plus, Montgomery County Public Schools has more than 160,000 students; my kid’s K-12 school has a few hundred. MCPS, and public schools everywhere, have a monumental task ahead, and I don’t envy them the difficulty.

Still, it’s been interesting to watch as parents everywhere narrow down to the truly important. When this is all over, we’ll have a much deeper understanding of what we really value in our schools, the jobs they do for our kids, and those that they don’t do.

We’ll have a greater appreciation for the essential - and not just as it pertains to our kids’ education.