Photo | Shane Rice
Life in the time of COVID
By Dale Liesch and Jason Johnson
Oysters were on the grill, a strawberry dessert was set in multiple dishes spread across a folding table underneath a tent. It almost looked like a typical Sunday get-together for neighbors on Le Moyne Place, but the street was oddly quiet for such festivities.
The neighbors kept their distance — six feet of separation — a new normal due to fears of spreading the novel coronavirus. Call it what you like, but Sheila Morris would prefer it not be called “social distancing.”
“It’s physical distancing, not social distancing,” Morris said from her front porch. “We’re physically separated. We have it set up with each family, each group is physically six feet separated and we get to enjoy each other’s company, we get to enjoy really good food and we get to protect each other because it’s all about taking care of each other.”
The neighborhood typically plans these block parties to celebrate spring, or the Fourth of July, or Christmas, but the one on Sunday looked different, Morris said. During a typical street party neighbors would intermingle and sit closer to one another, she said.
“There would be a lot more people in and out of houses,” Morris said. “We would, you know, just enjoy each other.”
The impact of COVID-19, and more specifically, social — or physical — distancing, has resulted in Mobilians finding interesting ways to interact, entertain and get exercise.
Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state the best way to slow the spread of the coronavirus is by social distancing. The guidelines are simple: Stay home.
Using cell phone data to track movement, Unacast has developed an online scoreboard and grading system showing how areas are doing when it comes to social distancing. Grades are given “A” through “F” based on how well an area or state is adhering to social distancing. “A” is a 40 percent or greater decrease in the average distance traveled. “F” indicates a less than 10 percent decrease in average distance traveled.
As a whole, the state of Alabama has a “D,” showing a 10 to 20 percent decrease in distance traveled, but Mobile and Baldwin counties scored an average grade of “C,” showing a 20 to 30 percent decrease in distance traveled.
Judy Prickett, who would normally spend a chunk of her day at a nearby senior center, instead could be seen walking around Medal of Honor Park.
“It’s new for me for right now,” she said of going to the park. “I was going to the senior center to work out. I can’t go to the senior center now.”
Prickett said while she misses her senior center friends, she has managed to keep up her workout routine by using online videos. She was at the park with friend Nancy Hanna. The two are also in a book club together that has met via telephone over the past two weeks.
“I’ve found it pretty satisfying after I hang up,” Hanna said. “We talk for about an hour and after I hang up I really feel I’ve been with the others.”
In addition to exercise, Prickett said the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines have given her more time to knit.
“I’m a knitter,” she said. “So, this to me is like guilt-free knitting time. I’m getting a lot of stuff knitted.”
Morris has been working from home for three weeks. She said she walks daily and only leaves the house otherwise to go to the grocery store.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said Monday, March 30 that the city was going to add limits to crowd sizes at grocery stores and other “essential businesses.” Stimpson also said those in groups larger than 10 could be asked to disperse by police.
Lauren McClinton, a fourth grade public school teacher in Mobile’s Chateauguay neighborhood, has been using a popular teacher website to help keep her own kids and others entertained. Specifically, she passed out a nature scavenger hunt through neighbors’ mailboxes to help engage everyone in the community. The hunts told children to find various items outside, like a rock, a leaf and other things.
Mobile’s spring break started on Monday, March 30 and McClinton has signed up for Google classroom to help her students online once school starts back.
As for her own kids, McClinton said she works to make it as stress-free as possible. There will be lessons, but also play time.
Of all the ways everyday life has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the abrupt end of in-person classes for public, private and parochial schools across the state has probably had the biggest impact.
When Gov. Kay Ivey announced on March 13 that all K-12 schools would be closing, most Alabamians realized they were going to have to drastically change their daily routines with little notice. In the days since, moms and dads across the state have been figuring out how to play two roles: parent and teacher.
“I was … I’d say nervous,” Jane Hale said. “Even though I’m a professional, I don’t have an education degree. I was a little scared at first, but we all started to get into a rhythm after about the first full week. They didn’t just throw us out there, they gave us a few days to get used to everything.”
Hale has twins who attend St. Paul’s Episcopal School and a 4-year-old in preschool. She’s a physical therapist by trade, but because nearly all non-emergency medical procedures have been canceled to keep hospital resources open for COVID-19 patients, her workload has been limited.
With her husband still working full time, she’s used her time to continue educating their children at home. It’s been a bit of a change, but with most schools already prolonging their hiatus from the classroom into the summer, it’s a routine she and other parents stuck at home will likely have time to get used to.
“Whenever we finish breakfast, we sit down with our computers, usually around 8 or 8:30 [a.m.] and then we’re done around 11 if we work straight through their assignments,” Hale said. “My kids tend to fly through everything because they’d rather get it done and have their afternoons free. I also try to let them move at their own pace — one usually needs a break, but then the other is very self-sufficient.”
Overall, Hale said she’s pleased with the system St. Paul’s is using for online learning. In addition to online lessons, there have been video conferences with the teachers and classmates and even virtual meetings for parents and teachers so everyone is on the same page. She said that’s made it easier for her, as someone without a background education, to track each of her children’s progress at home.
Jennifer Marley said her two boys (ages 13 and 16) have had a similar experience with their online work from UMS-Wright Preparatory School. She said her family’s transition to at-home learning has been fairly easy because her sons are old enough to hold themselves accountable for their own schoolwork.
That’s been a big help for Marley and her husband, who are also both teachers at Williamson High School and who will soon be leading their own online classrooms full of other local students.
“It has made my job a great deal easier because the kids have been in class from 8 to 3 every day on the computer and they’ve got alarms set so they know to switch periods,” Marley said. “Everything’s been so well organized, and that’s made it easier for me to focus on my students at Williamson.”
So far, Marley said one of the biggest challenges to homeschooling has been keeping two teenage boys fed all day. However, she did say the logistics of managing everyone’s schedule could get trickier once Williamson students begin at-home instruction April 6. That means both her sons will each be doing their classes while she and her husband are teaching theirs — all under one roof.
The homeschooling experience isn’t as structured for all parents, though. Some are taking this unique opportunity to tailor-make learning experiences for their families. Others are simply having to.
Tricia Butts has four children, ages 6, 5, 4, and 2. Her oldest — a first grader at Mary B. Austin Elementary — is the only one who is “school aged,” but the others were attending a church daycare program before the COVID-19 outbreak. Under their current homeschool model, all four are classmates.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Butts said she spends time every weeknight putting together at least some kind of a “lesson plan” for her children the next day. When she doesn’t, Butts says “it’s chaos” in the classroom.
“Some of the things I’m doing with the little kids is like using construction paper and cutting patterns with scissors, coloring or working with glue — basic little preschool things,” Butts said. “With my oldest, the school has actually sent out a packet and we’ve been working through those worksheets together each day, but I’ve also been trying to supplement that with some more interactive things as well.”
Those interactive lessons can vary depending on the family’s activities each day. One morning they found a dead bee and then spent part of their next lesson drawing and labeling the anatomy of bees. On another outing they found a bird’s nest on a walk through the neighborhood. When they got back home, they spent time learning about nesting and even tried to make their own nests.
Butts said those types of learning experiences have really seemed to engage her children despite their different ages. She said they’ve been rewarding for her as a parent.
“That’s really been the little bright spots. I probably never would have taken the time to point out nests to my kids before all of this and just talk about them and spring and the newness of life,” Butts said. “I’ve been able to kind of learn with my kids in a way, and that’s really been one of the joys.”
After morning lessons and lunch, Butts said her children focus on learning activities that are based on or involve the Bible. She told Lagniappe their Christian faith is important to their family, and that another benefit to having her kids at home has been planning lessons tailored to those interests.
“One of the things that’s very important to me as a parent is helping them grow in their faith,” Butts said. “So, I’ve tried to see how I can pull school activities out of that, whether it’s copying scriptures to practice handwriting or just analyzing and observing God’s creation in the real world and then learning about it.”
While parts of homeschooling have been good so far, other aspects have been challenging. Butts said one of her children has special needs and doesn’t have access to some of the same services that were available to him before the COVID-19 quarantine. However, Butts did say she realizes her family is “privileged” to have financial stability and a working situation that allows her to stay home during the week.
One thing Butts says she’s had to remind herself and tries to remind others of is that it’s OK if parents don’t automatically know how to “do everything” perfectly during these unprecedented times. There isn’t a playbook for becoming a homeschool teacher over a long weekend, and it will take some guesswork.
“It’s OK if some of us can’t do our jobs, keep these kids alive and teach them perfectly day in and day out,” she said. “Everybody is just trying to do the best that we can as we figure this out together.”
Local companies change to help
A problem locally and nationwide is the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospital workers and others on the frontlines fighting the virus. Two local companies are changing their production methods in an attempt to help provide these items.
Calagaz Printing in Mobile lost most of its menu-printing business in a matter of days. Instead of closing up shop, one of Joe Calagaz’s employees discovered a way to keep everyone working and help fulfill a local demand for medical supplies: The print shop would manufacture face shields for doctors and nurses.
Director of Sales Michael Cuesta used supplies in the office and “cobbled together” a face shield prototype. Using a clear piece of synthetic paper provided by a supplier, the print shop got to work “printing” 5,000 to 10,000 face shields per day, Calagaz said.
“We’ll be able to make 24,000 in about a week or so,” he said.
Calagaz said he wanted to print enough shields to help solve the problem, so he purchased all the clear paper he could.
“Us providing 50, 100 or even 300 shields won’t significantly impact the problem,” he said. “I would say 200,000 face shields could impact the problem.”
Gulf Packaging in Bay Minette made boxes for the shields, Calagaz said. While the process is going to help keep local hospitals supplied with safety equipment, it also ensures the print shop won’t have to lay off any of its 17 employees.
“First and foremost it’s given us something to do other than clean and cross-train,” Calagaz said. “It gives me a way to cover payroll and get through this.”
Perdido Vineyards in Baldwin County has begun taking orders for hand sanitizer, while it waits on a shipment of supplies, Marketing Director Sherri Clay said. The winery is using World Health Organization guidelines to make the hand sanitizer with 80 percent alcohol.
“We want to supply first responders, care facilities and then the public,” Clay said. “We’ve secured ingredients and orders for four batches.”
Once the supplies come in, Perdido Vineyards will begin making the first 66-gallon batch, Clay said.
University of South Alabama associate professor of psychology Dr. Phillip Smith believes at least some of the activities Mobilians are doing now because of social distancing could become part of a regular routine when the COVID-19 outbreak is more controlled.
“I think people will do some things differently for sure,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot more people biking during this time. I hope that continues.”
Simple things, like using Skype to contact friends who have fallen out of touch could be something that continues for many with this is over, he said.
“We take it for granted, but social connectedness and relationships are so important for well-being,” Smith said. “I wonder if this will make us appreciate that.”
While she doesn’t necessarily want to work from home forever because “it’s harder than people think it is,” Morris, of Le Moyne Place, does believe she’ll take some of what she has learned about herself from this time into a post-COVID-19 future.
“There are other aspects, like the daily walk [and] taking care of and checking on our older neighbors and making sure, you know, that they have what they need,” she said. “We were already a close-knit neighborhood. We’re even closer now.”
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