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The People Who Miss Our Kids

I’ve been seeing a lot of my son’s teacher lately. Not in person, of course — the lockdown means he hasn’t been to school in months. But I see her every day in the class meeting, skillfully wrangling a gang of first graders over Zoom, and it’s been a fascinating peek behind the scenes.

Though I always knew she was an excellent teacher, the classroom before the pandemic sometimes felt like a black box. I dropped my son off at school, he learned things and then I picked him up again. As the year progressed, he could suddenly do subtraction or explain what a narwhal was, but I never really saw the sausage being made. Now it’s being made every day at my dining room table.

With schools closed for more than 50 million students nationwide because of the coronavirus, teachers more accustomed to face time than FaceTime have pivoted heroically to distance learning. While virtual classes mean parents see more of their children’s teachers, the teachers see less of the children — and it stings.

“I miss their singing” said Jonathan Zielinski, a teacher in Chicago for fourth, fifth and sixth graders. “I miss laughing with them. I miss the stories they’d tell me in the odd moments between activities. I miss watching them work so I can see their thought process. As I tell them every day, I just miss their faces.”

Since shifting to remote learning, Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, head of school at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, N.J., is mourning the simple social rituals. “I used to begin every day at the front of the school, greeting students one by one,” he said. “Those small opportunities to connect — wishing someone a happy birthday, discussing last night’s sports game — are the hardest to replicate virtually.”

Most parents are wondering how the pandemic might be affecting their kids. But the people who used to look after those kids have had their lives upended too.

Kayla Altadonna, a sophomore at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, moved home to Erie, Pa., when her school closed amid Covid-19 concerns. She was sad to leave friends and classes, but the real blow was saying goodbye to the three sisters she had babysat regularly for a year.

“I was so used to being part of their lives,” she said. “I drove them to activities and made them dinner and put them to bed. They became like family to me. The hardest thing has been transitioning from knowing everything about their day to barely talking to them.” With Altadonna away, the family had to hire another sitter. “I was a little jealous,” she said. “I felt like ‘hey, you guys are mine!’”

Some caregivers have discovered the new gap in their lives isn’t just child-sized. Heather Faucheux, a nanny in New Orleans, La, hasn’t seen the kids she cares for since March. It makes her sad to know they’re growing and changing without her, but that’s not the only difficult part. “I miss the parents, too,” she said. “As a nanny, they’re sometimes the only adults you interact with all day.”

Even child care providers who still see some of their kids say it’s not the same without a full house. Jason and Camille Brandt, who own the Children’s Montessori Center in Fargo, N.D., have kept their preschool open for essential workers. But operating at a drastically reduced capacity, Jason said, has made for a very different experience — for the kids and staff.

“You lose the rhythm of teaching,” he said. “It makes it difficult to maintain what you’ve built up.” He has instituted regular Zoom calls for the kids at home, though said it’s hard to get much learning done. “At this age, they just want to see each other,” he said. “Their faces light up when their friends appear on the screen.”

My own attempts at helping my 2-year-old FaceTime her friends have been frenzied four-minute affairs, full of jubilant shrieking that ends abruptly when one party gets too excited and hurls the phone across the room.

But even this, the toddler version of herding cats, is a welcome glimpse of normalcy. Zielinski, who runs daily conferences for his students, said the virtual interactions — “even if they’re stilted and confusing”— are his favorite part of the day. “Kids sign up and don’t even want to talk about work,” he said. “They just want to connect and feel like they’re part of something.”

During quarantine, I’ve had to up my entertainment game to keep my children engaged and learning. They’ve made beaded bracelets to leave in neighbors’ mailboxes, played “sink or float” with a host of weird objects, and run through the house with a measuring tape as I feigned interest in the height of the stove. One afternoon, I had them lie in the driveway as I drew around their bodies with chalk. It was fun until they stood up and I realized I’d created a crime scene in my own front yard.

The professionals, of course, have better ideas. Use household odds and ends to build a playground for ladybugs, Camille Brandt said. Hide word clues after dinner to lead kids to their dessert, Knapp said. Zielinski has had older students calculate the tax on a delivery order and check to make sure it was accurate.

And Altadonna, unable to take her new charges to the zoo, printed pictures of animals for them to color, then had them act out each one. “Be goofy with your kids,” she said. “Forget about the messy room and just play as much as you can.”

If there’s anyone who knows about goofiness, it’s a former circus clown. David Magidson worked for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus before creating his alter ego, Boswick. Over the last 30 years he’s performed at more than 10,000 children’s events across the San Francisco Bay Area.

Crowned the world’s fastest balloon maker by the International Juggling Association, Boswick — in his checkered pants, oversized shoes and top hat — has shown George Takei, the “Star Trek” helmsman, how to make the Starship Enterprise with a balloon and once received a city proclamation from a local politician for “making his kids laugh too much.” These days, he misses the in-person energy of a live audience, but said children can conjure their own magic by staging a circus at home.

“Put your clothes on backward, your underwear on the outside, and an adult’s big old tennis shoes on your feet,” he said. “You don’t need special clown makeup, just a circle of red lipstick on your nose and cheeks.” Once you’ve assembled an audience of stuffed animals, it’s on with the show.

“Lay out a jump rope and walk across it without falling off,” he said. “Scraps of fabric are the easiest things to juggle. You can make puppets by drawing faces on paper bags or old socks.”

National Teacher Appreciation Week was a couple weeks ago and as I made a school donation that didn’t seem like enough, I felt a pang of sadness thinking of all the smart, creative adults absent from my children’s lives right now. It helps to know the feeling is mutual.

“If I could tell parents anything,” Zielinski said. “It’s that I miss their kids as much as they miss me.”


Holly Burns is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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