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For many Washingtonians, Friday, March 13, was the last day—the last day of physically going to work or school and the last day anything felt remotely close to normal before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus that has ravaged the United States and the world changed the way we do almost everything. For many young people used to daily routines, stability is gone. It’s been replaced by jumbled schedules, missed milestones, poor sleep and eating patterns, glitchy technology, and a lack of typical social interaction with teachers and friends. City Paper spoke to children and teens, and their parents, from all across the D.C. area to see how they’ve been handling the COVID-19 crisis at home in their new realities since that day.
March 13 was Rose Shafer’s last day of physically going to Yorktown High School, where she is a senior. Since then, she, like most other children and teens, has been doing school work online and staying home.
Shafer, who interned at City Paper in the summer of 2018, has found that her final high school semester has come to an abrupt, unceremonious, and chaotic end. In May, she’ll turn 18 and head to college at William & Mary in the fall.
“I’m torn between wanting to make the world a better place and wanting to do a job that won’t kill me, so I don’t know what to major in,” she says. “I’m probably going to double major.” She could see herself working in a garden or greenhouse, or perhaps at a nature center where she can spray mist on little frogs.
At this point, she just hopes that there will be a fall and that college will still be a thing then.
“I’m not usually an anxious person but the anxiety is kind of inescapable,” she says. “I’m in a constant back and forth between trying to stay informed and having to turn off the news because it makes me feel actually sick. I’m just doing what I can by donating to my local food bank and stuff; otherwise, I’ve been trying to avoid the internet and read all the unread books that haunt my shelf.”
There will be no prom or graduation ceremony for her senior class, nor will there be senior experience, a program that would have her do real-world work for school credit. She says she’s just fine with missing the large formal social events, but she is sad about losing out on senior experience. However, she “can’t find room to complain or feel seriously upset about it” while people are dying, she says. Her school has informed her that she’s basically already graduated. Her online school work can be done at her leisure she says, because “due dates are social constructs at this point.” Teachers aren’t giving tests, but rather assignments that receive a complete or incomplete.
She’s also working at her local cemetery for a few hours on most weekdays, where she pulls weeds, mows the lawns, and tends to the rose garden. She says she barely has to interact with people (and stays at least six feet away when she does) and regularly cleans equipment. The property contains more than 75 species of trees, she says, and they’re “all iconic and blossoming right now.”
For fun, she reads, works on puzzles with her family, and takes walks around the neighborhood “photographing the exotic flora and fauna of North Arlington.” She also has weekly oboe lessons via Zoom. Sometimes the stream crashes or glitches while she’s playing.
Currently, she’s reading a book about medieval Swedish history in which the black plague is a topic of discussion. That “really puts it in perspective,” she says. She recently finished War and Peace, which she calls “an experience.”
As an introvert, she likes spending time alone, but now, she says, she’s forgotten how to interact with other humans. “When they do contact me, I’m like wait how do you have a conversation again?”
One of the worst aspects of the pandemic, she says, is “the way it’s revealed all the inequalities of the system. I wish there was more I could do. But at some point I have to tear myself away from upsetting media about things that are entirely beyond my control because it just makes me so upset that it’s hard to go about life and do work.”
Kelis Corley of Capitol Heights, laments that her final high school semester will end without any of the celebration that usually comes with it. The 17-year-old St. John’s College High School senior plans to attend Stony Brook University in New York on a basketball scholarship in the fall. Her high school basketball season concluded before the coronavirus-related closures, but nearly everything else has changed.
“We already did most of our work on an online system, but now we get so much more work,” she says. “It’s a little bit harder because you’re not having a whole lesson there.”
Time management for school work has been tough—it’s hard to stay focused at home when she can turn on her television at any time. At school, there are no at-home distractions, and the teacher is always right there to lend help when it’s needed. If she needs help now, Corley says, she has to email her teacher and wait for a response. At one point, the sound wasn’t working during one of her online sessions. Her teacher was teaching, but couldn’t be heard by students. They’ve since figured out the technological woes, she says, but the hands-on aspects of learning are still absent.
The decrease in her ability to socialize in person has been a particularly challenging adjustment. “You don’t get to see anybody,” she says. “Your senior year, you’re going to want to have fun. We can’t have prom or graduation anymore, so it’s really sad for our class. We’re missing a lot of experiences that everybody looks forward to when they’re growing up.”
She and her classmates and teachers are used to seeing each other every day. She’s realized how instrumental they are in her life now that they’re physically gone from it.
Her days are slow. She wakes up just before having to go to virtual class from about 9:30 a.m. until about 2:30 p.m. She also tries to get workouts in to stay fit. Her college basketball team’s summer workouts, where she’d get to know her new teammates, have been canceled. She cooks more now, too. Her mom gets the groceries. Corley has asthma, and her mother doesn’t think she should be potentially putting herself at risk by going out.
With physical classes and activities canceled, her senior group is filled with anger and sadness for what feels like their lost and incomplete year. “We’ve worked our whole lives to get to this point to graduate,” she says. “Everybody’s just really mad at the world. Everybody’s posting memories of school because who would have thought that we couldn’t finish school.”
But there is one thing Corley can be happy and proud about: There are only a few weeks left of high school.
“Everything else is gone, but I’m still excited that I finally finished,” she says.
While older high schoolers are able to find perspective and think about the future, younger children still have plenty of schooling left and are less independent, relying more heavily on their parents.
DC Public Schools special education teacher and ANC7B02 commissioner Tiffany L. Brown has had to build new routines after her family’s regular schedule was thrown off. She and her husband live with their two children, sixth grader Jaala, 11, and seventh grader Joel, 12, and their dog, a “spoiled” Shih Tzu-poodle mix, in Hillcrest.
Brown says Joel and Jaala, who attend Capitol Hill Montessori, can bother each other but generally get along, and these days, when they aren’t doing school work online, they’re enjoying competing for the dog’s attention. Jaala is outgoing and an independent learner, and Joel is more reserved and needs more motivation to work, Brown says. She imagines her son sitting quietly in class if he doesn’t understand something, and waiting until class is over to ask for help individually.
At home, they wake up at different times. Joel is also a big proponent of meal time.
“My son’s stomach goes off at 8, 12, and 4,” she says. “‘Mom, what’s for lunch?’ and I’m like ‘You just ate breakfast an hour ago!’”
For a few weeks, Brown says her children have been “over it.” But she’s trying to make sure they’re getting their work done, despite the slowed down and strained internet at home. There has to be accountability, she says. Otherwise the school year might as well end. Guiding her children academically can still be difficult. “Someone is usually presenting this information to them,” she says. “Even though I’m a teacher, I’m not a middle school teacher.”
When they’re not working, Joel likes to play on his Xbox. Jaala spends her time on TikTok. “If I let her, my daughter would stay on her phone for 24 hours,” Brown says. She’s trying to figure out how to transfer her daughter’s energy for TikTok into energy for school work.
Joel can worry, and now has no interest in leaving his home, Brown says. “I watch more news than I should so that means my kids watch more news. So, when they said ‘stay in, it’s really bad,’ my son didn’t even want to go outside.” He’s good talking with and texting his friends on the phone.
Do they miss their school friends?
“Yes,” says Jaala.
“A little,” says Joel.
What do they think about the pandemic?
“I don’t feel comfortable with it because it’s like a virus that could come out of nowhere at any time,” Joel says.
“I don’t like it,” Jaala says. “I do online school now and I don’t like it. I like interacting with my teachers at school and getting to see my friends.”
Jo-Jo Valenzuela and his wife have their three boys—Lorenzo, 12, Sebastian, 6, and Dominic, 3—at home now. Understandably, their Falls Church home can get rowdy.
Lorenzo is in sixth grade and Sebastian is in kindergarten, and both attend Shrevewood Elementary. They’re doing distance learning and receiving weekly school work packets. Recently, their school tried to do a virtual conference call, but there are bugs that needed to be fixed for the technology they’re using to work properly, Valenzuela says.
Valenzuela is looking forward to having Dominic in preschool next year. “He’s a smart kid,” he says. “He’s been reading and writing since he was 2. He’s the genius of the family.”
Valenzuela says he takes care of the children’s daily activities as his wife works from home as an accountant, and he physically goes to work a couple days a week. Valenzuela is a beverage consultant for his company Jo-Jo the Barkeep LLC, and the management partner, co-owner, and chef at The Game Sports Pub in Adams Morgan.
“I’ve just got to make sure they do it,” he says. “A 30-minute activity turns into three hours for the 6-year-old, Sebastian.”
He’s tried to find activities to do with the boys, like guitar playing. “I used to be a guitar player, so I threw in some guitar lessons here and there. We were active for like three days, and that was it,” he jokes.
With their daily schedule jumbled due to the lack of physical school, the three boys wake up and go to bed at different times. Lorenzo is early to fall asleep and also an early riser. “Sebastian is definitely like a noon guy,” Valenzuela says.
How does Sebastian feel about what’s happening in the world and the fact that he has to stay home now? “Sad,” he says. “I want to play.”
Sebastian enjoys recess at school, and misses playing on the playground. Lorenzo says he misses recess too, because it’s his last year of it before moving on to seventh grade. To pass his time, he’s “been playing video games a lot, and at night we watch movies,” he says.
They often set up a time after dinner before going to bed to sit together and watch. They’ve gone through nearly the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe canon of films. Valenzuela says he worked constantly before the pandemic grabbed hold of his life. Now, he’s with his family much more. “I learned how to skateboard because my son learned how to skateboard,” Valenzuela says.
They’re spending time eating together, and playing catch and board games. Valenzuela says he regularly loses board games to his sons. “They’re really good,” he says, laughing. “I’m really trying my best to win.”
And sometimes, when the weather is nice and the neighborhood isn’t bustling, they go outside to play on the backyard trampoline.
Ice Cream Jubilee owner Victoria Lai and her husband, literary agent Howard Yoon, are both running their businesses from home and splitting their time between conference calls and phone meetings and their children. Together, they have Zoey, who’s 3-and-a-half, and Zander, who’s 6 months old. Lai’s stepson Ian, 15, is with them every other week, alternating between their Mount Pleasant home and his mother’s place nearby.
Lai says Zander is “a healthy, fast-growing, big chunker of a boy.” He wakes up in the wee hours of the morning for feedings, and Zoey wakes up between 6 and 7 a.m., calling for Yoon.
“I love being crafty, and Zoey is a little bit too,” she says. “So we try to do activities, from pouring colored water from one container to another to finger painting. Many, many days, we are putting on Moana or a lot of iPad time, especially if Howard and I have calls or important documents or meetings to get out.”
Zoey is luckily still taking naps; she might start napping as early as 12:30 p.m. or as late as 3 p.m. The pair have adjusted all of their calls to be taken in the “nap zone.”
“Every day feels like such a marathon,” she says. She can’t reliably work on anything. She’s had to use feeding time to her advantage.
“When Zander was getting up twice a night, there’s something biological that gets you,” she says. “My eyes would fly open the moment I heard him stirring. I would go and give him a bottle and then I would be like, ‘I have a million things to do: I have to apply for my PPP loan, I have to apply for the D.C. microgrants.’ I’m going to do it between 2 and 4 a.m. because I can’t do it after 9 a.m.”
After about five weeks of not having the full attention of her teachers or playtime with her peers, Zoey can be more clingy now, Lai says. It’s been tough to have a serious call while she’s awake and nearby. Lai can do all of her check-in calls with Zander snuggled in her lap, but she recalls one incident that he interrupted. “I was leading a conference call with my team, and I looked down and he was so quiet for a long time, and I saw he had this big poopy diaper blowout and I was like ‘I gotta go guys!’ It was just one of those mom moments that I think I’m not alone in, juggling the disaster that can be functioning as a 100 percent parent and 100 percent business owner and working person at the same time.”
Lai says she hasn’t had a chance to be bored or depressed because she’s been kept busy. Everything she does, from sitting down to play LEGOs with Zoey for 45 minutes to staying up in the middle of the night to apply for loans, she’s doing for her children and her employees. As wild as the current situation is, there are nice moments. Lai enjoys making her kids laugh, spending time with her husband, and taking 5 p.m. pre-dinner walks that might not otherwise be happening if they were running around meeting clients and reporters.
“So what that I may never see Tiger King? That is not even something that occurs to me,” she says. “I self-medicate with chocolate, like a lot of chocolate. And we get by.”
Julia Saladino and her husband juggle time working and parenting their nearly 19-month-old daughter, Adelina, at home. Saladino is a nonprofit attorney who runs a legal email hotline, and her husband is a therapist. They’ve both been working from home since mid-March, and have decided that as long as they are home, they’ll be there with their daughter regardless of her daycare’s status.
“Outside of our parental leave, I don’t think it’s ever been like this extended amount of time that we’re all hanging out at the house,” she says.
The first couple weeks were stressful. Saladino is thankful that her workplace is flexible and understanding. But the pressure of trying to balance everything at once was overwhelming. Since then, she’s figured out more of a working routine. Her husband has the baby in the morning and she has her in the afternoon.
It’s tricky, though, in their small Brookland condo, to navigate Adelina’s needs while working.
“She’s at the age where she’s obsessed with mom,” Saladino says. “It makes it so that I honestly can’t be in the condo because she’ll lose her mind if I’m not on the floor playing with her. She hunts me and she’ll just be screaming.”
Saladino’s solution: She works on a chair right outside the condo front door. Her daughter is fine when Saldino is not accessible, and enjoys hanging out with her father, she says. “It’s absurd, but I just have to do that to make it so everyone’s calm.”
As she works in the mornings, her husband and daughter go for a run and have breakfast. Around noon, Saladino returns to do lunch and nap time, and spends the afternoon with Adelina. Her husband needs complete privacy while he works. Saladino says she has to run interference to make sure her daughter doesn’t bang on the door as he works in another room.
“It’s definitely challenging and not ideal, but we are doing our best to make it work for as long as we need to,” she adds. “In her defense, I’m not usually on my computer if I’m home with her. She’s not used to me being home and not having my attention.”
Adelina’s routine has been completely altered, and it’s happened at an interesting time in her development, says Saladino. Months 14 through 18 were challenging, she says, because Adelina had a lot of emotions but still lacked good communication skills. She was often screaming and throwing herself to the ground, unable to articulate what she wanted.
“A little before 18 months, there was a huge explosion with her language,” she says. “It’s been very interesting to be witnessing it so fully because we wouldn’t be spending this much time with her if she was in daycare. She’s able to tell us a lot of the things that she needs now. I keep remembering that this is probably so confusing for her, because her brain’s rapidly developing and she’s gaining all these communication skills.”
Saladino misses her Trader Joe’s time. Her weekly self-care ritual involved going to the store by herself for a couple hours, just walking around and listening to her podcasts. It’s not realistic to do that anymore. “Whatever you do for your alone time, you probably aren’t doing it now, so that’s really hard,” she says.
Living in a world overtaken by a viral pandemic is wearying. But once the worst of it has passed and regular routines return, Saladino says, she can look back on this and be grateful that she got to spend so much time with her daughter. “I’m seeing all this language acquisition; she knows how to ask me for a hug. I feel really fortunate that we’re all together and we’re safe and we’re healthy.”
They’re able to eat dinner as a family now that no one needs to leave for and come back from work. They also FaceTime family members with Adelina in tow. “We usually call my nephew who lives in Louisiana,” she says. “He’s like 21 and she loves him. She asks for him every day.”
Adelina has been in a music class for several months. They can’t meet in person now, but they’re producing online content. Every evening, Adelina listens to a lullaby.