Inside the quarantine


As a parent of three currently healthy young adult daughters, my perspective on this past week may not be the same as someone else’s, and I feel that everyone is navigating this new normal very differently.

When Cranston Herald editor Dan Kittredge asked me to chronicle our view from the inside, at first I hesitated. Ultimately, I agreed, mostly because I wanted a record of these times for myself and for my family. We are in the midst of something none of us in our generation have ever lived through before. It’s a story I hope to be able tell my grandchildren in the future.

Week 1: March 13-20

My kids started texting me from school early on Friday afternoon – Friday the 13th.

“We’re getting out early! They’re dismissing us now! Woohoo!” the texts read. They could not believe their luck. An early start to the weekend was in store.

But an email to parents had also gone out at the same time. 

After weeks and months of hearing about the coronavirus in the news, everyone in our community was finding out simultaneously that our world was really about to change.

Just an hour or so before, in a press conference, the governor had shut down all of the school districts in our state for a week, moving up our scheduled April vacation week in order to lessen the impact of missed school days and to give every public school district the chance to put together a comprehensive plan for remote teaching and learning.

But if there is anything we’ve seen as the virus has made its way into the United States, into Rhode Island and into Cranston, it’s that everything changes very quickly.

“Within the last hour...” Assistant Superintendent Norma Cole wrote in her community email.

And so it was announced that a positive case of the novel coronavirus had been diagnosed for one of our own Cranston High School West students.

The words were there in black and white for my two Cranston West students.

Quarantine. Fourteen days.

Suddenly the steady stream of all the canceled events that had been consuming our thoughts over the past week or so was overshadowed by this latest news.

The kids’ excitement at being dismissed early was dampened pretty quickly once they realized that, yes, they were being sent home early, but they now had to stay home for the next two weeks straight. With the winter we’d just had, filled with months on end of regular winter illnesses – whether it was a stomach bug, colds or flu – we were finally all well at once for the very first time since before Christmas. And now here we were, quarantined.

Although the quarantine message said families and siblings need not quarantine, per the CDC and Rhode Island Department of Health instructions, we knew that we’d be laying low anyway and only going out if we absolutely had to.

I spent the next couple of days over the weekend running a couple of quick errands to various stores as I tried to pick up the remainder of the items we needed to get through 14 days – especially knowing that at any time a shutdown or a lockdown could be put into effect just as quickly, or that the rest of us could end up officially quarantined as well, and that would severely limit our getting out.

I found myself less panicked by the thought of not having enough toilet paper as I was about the thought of not having enough sugar and creamer for my coffee. If I couldn’t have my morning coffee, especially at a time like this, things might get ugly quickly.

I was also trying to plan ahead for two of our family members to have birthdays midway through the quarantine period. My husband and youngest daughter share March 23 as their birthday and I was trying to prepare in advance for an at-home celebration, adding cake and gifts, cards and gift wrap, plus a birthday meal to my list of things to remember.

Like the rest of the city, as I went from store to store, I was amazed by the empty shelves, aisles and refrigerator cases, but also amazed by the often helpful and somehow often cheerful store employees as I shopped. They seemed to be keeping their chin up, as the saying goes, despite pandemonium and panic-driven shopping.

As I shopped, I planned our meals by what was left on the shelves and what I knew we had on hand at home already. By the time I got home on that very first day, I was inundated with texts and messages checking in on us to see what our situation was and if we needed anything. Many offers of help rolled in, and although we didn’t need anything, I was reminded that although so often the worst of times can bring out the worst in people, it can also bring out the best in people.

Someone in our neighborhood created a neighborhood group page on Facebook, and even there, people were offering to help each other. I don’t even know all of our neighbors, so I wasn’t even sure who was who, but it was nice to be connecting, despite the circumstances.

It was just the first weekend, but it was reassuring to see so much good in such nerve-wracking times.

As our college-aged daughter arrived home late that first night for at least the next two weeks, I was relieved to have her home with us although I did feel very badly that her plans for the spring break, like those for so many others, were canceled. She joined us in the laying low at home, as she realized that even though she wasn’t quarantined, other than helping with runs to the store, there wasn’t much she could do either.

The quarantined kids began to figure out how to fill their days for at least this first week, which was supposed to be the new April vacation, per the governor’s instructions. On the one hand, they were immediately bored and the mere fact of knowing they couldn’t leave the house was making them crazy, even though on any other given weekend they might revel in the idea of staying home in pajamas all day for the weekend. On the other hand, they were planning to do so many things, from cooking things and baking things to painting and creating things and maybe even reading a book here and there.

They were writing letters to their great-grandmothers, who were also quarantined and stuck in their nursing homes with no visitors allowed. On the first day I recommended that they slow down, not rush to do everything at once, and I also recommended that maybe they add a few items to their lists – like maybe putting away their laundry or cleaning their rooms.

Of course, unlike in past generations who may have faced a similar quarantine rule, there’s technology that allows for communication with family and friends where there wasn’t a generation ago. A group FaceTime took place and an Instagram quarantine group was formed.

The FaceTime group decided to write letters to each other and send them through the mail. They then realized that many of them didn’t know how to address an envelope, where the postage stamp went or what flag you needed to put up on the mailbox. This inconvenient situation might actually lead to a little bit of learning some additional life skills as well.

As Sunday night closed in, the first official weekend of quarantine was over, and we moved into the work week. Two of us still had to work, so we left early in the morning on Monday when all were still asleep, and headed out to see what the day would hold. We hoped that when we got home the three who were all there together had survived the day.

Indeed they had, but I immediately added emptying and refilling the dishwasher to my “suggested” list of the next day’s activities for the girls as I came into the kitchen with yet more bags of groceries in hand from a trip to another store after work, trying to get as many supplies that we still needed as I could. I had approximately 12 meals planned and I hoped that I had plenty of food and snacks on hand.

That evening a call came in for our oldest daughter from her college friends that at some point very soon, they would be given information about going back to school to pack up and move out. Two-hour time slots would be assigned in which they could go back to the dorms to get their belongings.

Although we all had guessed that call might be coming, I think we had all held out a tiny bit of hope that maybe it wouldn’t and we’d get through this without the year ending. Either way, it was very upsetting, stressful and disappointing, and it was something that really emphasized the seriousness of this situation once again for all of us, but especially for her.

When leaving for spring break, even an extended one, no one had thought to say a real goodbye, just in case. There were people she might never see again, those who were seniors, but even people she was close to who she just assumed she’d be seeing sooner than later. Now, she didn’t know when she’d see them again.

In my mind, too, I tried to plan out how to get in and out of her dorm room quickly with nothing there really packed up or ready to go. She’d left at the end of a regular school day, she’d packed up what she’d need for the next two weeks, having just gotten notice of the extended spring break week only days before, and she had come home with as much as she could at the time. It was going to be challenging to say the least.

Now, in her mind, she panicked about the reality of online learning at the college level and what it would look like for her particular classes while she simultaneously tried to figure out how to manage getting back to pack up and move out. She sent a message to all of the residents in her dormitory that she oversaw as a resident assistant, offering them what information she had and offering her emotional support to them as well, should they need it, even though she was struggling with her own emotions and uncertainties, too.

When one of my kids asked on the first Monday evening if after the 14 days was up, they would then be able go out again, I tried to explain that although technically yes they could, that in reality there most likely would be no place to go by that time.

To put things in perspective, I reminded them that Anne Frank was confined somewhat similarly and at about the same age, and how lucky we all were that our situation was nowhere near as bad as that one. We were hiding from a virus, trying to keep healthy and keep those around us healthy, but we weren’t being hunted down because of our religion or ethnicity. We could be loud and active during the days, not hiding out and staying silent until nighttime, and currently we were all in fact, healthy. We had plenty of ways to communicate with our friends and family without leaving the house, and we had a lot to be thankful for.

She readily agreed, knowing that things could be so much worse, and she gets it, but it truly is hard for any of us to wrap our heads around this current situation because none of us have ever been through anything like it in our lifetimes. It’s hard to make the shift from thinking in terms of how things normally are and making future plans as we normally would, only to realize none of what we are planning will actually be able to happen.

As we closed out week one of quarantine, which really felt much longer than a week, both girls reported that other than being generally bored, they were doing okay.

In the coming days they would begin remote learning, and I think that both were looking forward to getting back into some sort of general educational routine. I am grateful they had each other to help them get through these days while we worked, and that so far, we remained healthy as a family. Every sneeze or sniffle I have heard as the days go by have had me momentarily panicked, but so far all of us are well.

We were gearing up for the college move-out day over the weekend, and for the double-birthday in-house celebration before it was back to work for two of us and for two of the girls it would be back to school on Monday. College classes online would begin the following week and I was thankful for all the efforts being taken by all of our educators to allow our kids at every level to continue their education despite the changing day-to-day dynamic in our world.

Jen Cowart is a regular contributor to the Cranston Herald and a communications specialist for Cranston Public Schools.