After a Scarsdale Middle School faculty member tested positive for COVID-19, schools closed March 9 and classes ceased for a week. But Scarsdale schools officially launched e-learning — or distance learning — Monday, March 16, as the community stayed home to curb the spread of coronavirus by social distancing.
At the Kushnick household, it was a strange day for sure.
Dad Scott went off to work as usual for his real estate business.
Mom Allison was home with their three kids: junior Max, freshman Freddy and seventh-grader Sophie. Allison would normally be home anyway, but on this day she was monitoring the homeschooling as she temporarily closed down her home baking business, Go Nuts, and postponed a large order for an important client as a result of the pandemic.
The week prior was a whirlwind of fear, emotions and uncertainty as COVID-19 grew into a bigger story by the day and parents — and kids — realized they needed to cut down on or eliminate hangouts and playdates as alarming information on the rapid spread of the virus became available.
The social distancing was admittedly a gradual thing. At first, although some parents initially kept their kids home, many parents allowed their kids out and about.
“As the week progressed a lot of people — and I think definitely Scarsdale and the world — started to take this a lot more seriously,” Max said. “People definitely felt more uncomfortable going out and being confined in a home with a bunch of people, and parents were telling more and more kids they weren’t allowed to leave the house.
“It’s tough because we’re not quarantined. We can go out. But I think it’s definitely better to keep hangouts to smaller numbers. Huge groups inside a house aren’t the smartest, because you don’t know where your friends are going, where the families have been.”
And so, at 10 a.m. Monday, Allison made sure the kids were up by 10 a.m. and ready to delve into what would be the new norm, at least through the end of the month, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Westchester County Executive George Latimer announced Monday that all New York State public and private schools, including 44 in Westchester alone, would be closed and distance learning rolled out.
Being closed for a week prior to the mandated closing while most other schools remained open was actually an advantage for Scarsdale’s administrators and faculty as it allowed them to focus solely on rolling out new educational options. The original plan was to have that going for March 16 to 18, the final three days of the eight-day shutdown, though as the date to reopen approached, it became clear the closure would be a longer haul than that.
“It’s just structure,” Allison said. “I don’t know if 10 a.m. was a little late, but I was like, ‘OK, let’s wake up and go to homeschool today.’ It’s a very big adjustment, but they’re smart kids — they’re going to get it done.
“Everything is out of our control right now, so the only control I have is in this house, what we can do as far as making sure they are on top of everything and just having some rhythm for the day. Also getting fresh air. We’ve been lucky for a while with the weather.”
On the first day Allison noted, “The posts [from teachers] are not timely,” in that they come at all different times, but she expected that to even itself out as the teachers, many of whom are at home with their own children, are also figuring out the new dynamic.
Since she doesn’t really have to supervise her largely independent children, Allison’s mission is “keeping the house clean and keeping the kids safe for now.”
The kids are alright
The Kushnick boys’ approaches to hunkering down and getting their work done varies greatly — Max is focused and on point, while Freddy procrastinates and doesn’t have the same level of organization, but always gets the job done — and Mom really has enjoyed observing Sophie and her tendencies, which are developing in front of her mom’s eyes.
“I’m actually a little excited to see what they’re learning… I was looking at Sophie’s Schoology [online learning platform] and it’s interesting to me,” Allison said. “I’m excited to be with her throughout this and be a part of it, [to] interact a little more with the academics.”
Once they get to work, the Kushnicks are very meticulous in their studies. All working in their own bedrooms, the boys typically sit at their desks, while Sophie prefers to sit with her laptop, textbooks, notebooks and worksheets atop her cozy comforter on her bed, often with the family’s dog Ted by her side.
“I’m still a little confused with what each of my kids are up to, but I really have a lot of trust and I’m at ease with how they’re going to handle it,” Allison said, adding, “I know they are all great students and I don't have any doubt they’re going to do well with this homeschooling or e-learning. It’s very interesting to see the approach and the teachers are very different.”
Max started getting communications and assignments from his teachers by Thursday of last week.
“With all the time in the day I’ve planned it out, but I’ve been thinking to myself that it probably would be easier if I just woke up a little earlier and did all my work and had the rest of the day to kind of relax,” Max said. “I’ve been spreading it out throughout the day and either one works. I just make sure I get done by the end of the day what I need to do.”
Of course, junior year is a big one for high school students. Max had SATs canceled last Saturday, so he said he would continue to prepare for that until it is rescheduled. He also has a pre-existing history project and research paper to continue.
“I’ve definitely been getting a fair share of work in all of my classes,” he said. “My math teacher has started a new topic where we actually got a good 20-minute video where we saw the screen of the teacher doing the work with a voiceover of him explaining it and going over it. It actually worked pretty well and was helpful.”
Max’s first “live” online session with a teacher was scheduled for Wednesday and after working in solitude for so many days, he expected that would be a highlight of his week.
“It was a lot of reading, we were given a good amount of time where we could spread it out and … we’re going to have a discussion and maybe talk about the [history] project,” he said. “Obviously there hasn’t been that much discussion — it’s just kind of been doing the work on our own. I think discussion is important because you get to hear other things and you end up learning something new outside of the reading. I find I’m doing that a lot in history because a lot of kids in my class do know a lot and they teach me a lot about the topic, too. That discussion is helpful, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Max has the added burden of worrying about the college process, too. While admissions offices will certainly take the pandemic into consideration should it drag on, the uncertainty is adding varying amounts of concern to an already stressful situation.
“I wouldn’t say I’m stressed, because there’s really nothing I can control,” Max said. “It’s definitely weird because there’s definitely a lot of places I wanted to see, whether local or going on a plane and seeing a bunch of schools. That doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a possibility for the foreseeable future. Hopefully if this clears up in the fall I’ll have time to go tour some schools. For now most of my searching looks like it will have to be on the computer with virtual tours and research about what each college has to offer just from home.”
As an upperclassman, Max is in tune with his slightly older peers and knows that whatever is happening for grades K-11 and college kids in freshman to junior year pales in comparison to what seniors are experiencing.
“I talked to some of the guys and, especially for the seniors, this has been tough on them,” Max said. “Not just lacrosse, but they’re missing out on a lot of stuff. They don’t know what’s going on with prom or their trip to the Bahamas. Definitely for the seniors it’s tough.”
Freddy said he was getting assignments not only for his academic classes, but for physical education and art, too.
“The academics, like biology, English, history and math, we should have work,” he said. “I think P.E. and art are kind of unnecessary. I’m working out and running around on my own, and I don’t think it’s necessary doing art out of school.”
So far it’s been a collection of readings, videos, things to write up and some assignments to post for his teachers to see.
The family procrastinator said, “I told myself I was going to start my work on Saturday, but I haven’t. I didn’t do anything the last two days, so I’ll have a decent amount today. I’ll get it done.”
All the kids are taking everything in stride, but Sophie has had the biggest disappointment thus far with the postponement of her bat mitzvah, which was supposed to be next month. She’s worked so hard toward that, so getting a little more distraction in her life — even if it is schoolwork — helps.
“Academically they are spreading it out really well,” Sophie said. “Like for science there’s a video we have to watch and answer a few questions. Some of the stuff for social studies we’ve already learned on the topic and there’s textbook pages that we already have at home. Nothing really new that’s that bad. I think they’re spreading it out well. I’m just trying to stay organized.”
In addition to the bat mitzvah, all three kids are disappointed that sports have been delayed. The boys play lacrosse, Sophie plays tennis in the spring. They work out and run to stay in shape — sometimes in small groups — but it’s just not the same. Preseason for high school teams was supposed to begin March 9, the first day schools were closed; an announcement that came the night before.
Summer plans are also up in the air. Will there be camp? Work? Socializing? Vacations? No one knows the answers to this and they will likely come later rather than sooner.
“We have to stay calm,” Allison said. “That’s our job as parents. It’s to keep them understanding. We don’t hide anything. We educate them as much as possible. We do like to make sure they don’t read too many crazy things online.”
Keeping an eye on the three kids’ emotional state is a major priority, and the school district is providing resources for families in need of help. Allison credited Scott with being very “Zen,” a calming force for the entire family. Ted, a therapy dog, is also a central figure in the household.
“He’s going to be keeping everybody happy,” Allison said. “Sometimes I take him around, like to the Pleasantville Cottages. It’s been a while, but he just gives so much love and ease, and I think he’s going to be good for these guys.”
Allison believes the kids’ attitudes mirror the calm example she and Scott are setting.
“We’ve told our kids that it’s highly possible they are going to get this virus, so let’s just plan that,” Allison said. “It’s OK. We will be OK. Really our job is to protect the community and not to be spreading it. I feel like they understand that.”
Passing time has been a big challenge for many families. As of Monday, people can’t go to restaurants, gyms or movie theaters, and the professional sports world has also shuttered.
“It’s frustrating with the sports not being on TV,” Allison said. “That’s such a social thing. We watch hockey 24/7 in our house and it’s a little weird not to have that.”
Allison’s parents live in New York City and this is yet another obstacle to negotiate for a generation of folks who have already been through a lot in their lifetime. Among other challenges, her mom and dad had to evacuate from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
“We’re doing all this for them,” Allison said. “They say we’re going to be fine. Here I am telling my parents to stay home and they [normally] don’t stay home. Now they are, but in the beginning they really weren’t… The older generation in general has been through a lot. I saw a joke about our grandparents: They were sent to war and we’re being sent to the couch. I think we can handle that, because I know it’s bigger than that.”
While the Kushnicks hope their new normal gives way to the old normal sooner rather than later, there is something Allison knows for sure: “The one good thing is I get to see my kids more often,” she said.