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Navigating the new, for-now normal

Families adjust to uncertainty, forge ahead with learning

On the second day of state- (and world-) wide hunkering down and social distancing, Samantha Cornell was finishing up an online conference call with her co-workers at a nonprofit health organization. It ran over, she said,  because they are all adjusting to the technology learning curve.

“It’s an adventure,” the East Grand Rapids mom said.

Cornell and her husband, Tom, have two children at home. Harry is a seventh grader at East Grand Rapids Middle School, and Ollie is in fifth grade at Wealthy Elementary.

She admitted that both she and Tom, an English teacher at Wyoming Public Schools and an adjunct instructor at GRCC, have been largely preoccupied with the task of ramping up their own jobs online. But Cornell said their boys have so far risen to the task of ramping up their own jobs: doing school.

“The children, bless them, have been very good sports,” she said. “They have been making their own schedules to get a rhythm to their day, and they’ve done a good job.”

Her guidance was going to be needed that evening in her role as volunteer coach for the middle school robotics team. Students had rallied to set up an online video meeting, which she predicted would “probably be the smoothest online meeting I’ve ever attended. They are all experts at the technology.”

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In a phone interview, Cornell shared further thoughts about how her family is weathering the coronavirus shutdown, school-wise and otherwise.

On disappointments, and resilience: Speaking of robotics, Harry’s team qualified for the now-canceled world level of competition in April. “Which was understandable, but crushing,” Cornell said. But in a nod to the resilience of youth, she said teams all over the area are continuing to meet online even with the competition off the table. “They just love what they do so much.”

On doing school: Cornell had high praise for her school district and her sons’ teachers — not only for rising enthusiastically to the unprecedented challenge at hand, but in preparing them for the extreme gear shift.

She mentioned grade-level virtual book clubs created by teachers. “It’s really sweet. There’s a picture of all three teachers holding their books so they can see them reading too.

“At a time like this, when (students) feel like they lost so much so quickly, to see the teachers who have been the center of their lives all year … it’s amazing. I’m so grateful for everything they did through the year to build those relationships. There’s no way we can replace their learning online, but the relationships they formed in classrooms are a strong backbone.”

She gave a particular shoutout to the fifth grade teacher team at Wealthy, and the first email they sent with instructions for learning.

“They have done an excellent job keeping a good balance of getting them engaged and not making it so onerous that it’s overwhelming,” she said. “I looked at it and thought, I’d like to be a fifth grader.

“What really struck me is that what they sent was very loving. What they put together was very intentional and caring, and drove home that even in a time none of us have anticipated, they have really gone above and beyond and put the kids’ best interests first.”

On closed classrooms: Tom Cornell said he’s definitely missing his Wyoming High School students, “and just the rhythm of the (school) day.”

“Especially in Wyoming, we have a lot of kids who really appreciate the structure of school. I’m kind of concerned for them.”

He said many of his students do not have internet access at home. For now, he has been posting messages to his students via Google Classroom, reminding them that they can still turn in assignments that were due, and letting them know he expects them to continue to read the novel he assigned.

Though it is hoped that many can connect with offers such as from Comcast for free 60-day internet access, he said, “At this point we can’t do any actual assignments, because there’s not that equity. Hopefully that will get resolved.”

On getting exercise and fresh air: Cornell said they are still working out how to navigate living in a densely populated neighborhood, and “the perils of deciding whether to let our son go out and kick the soccer ball, when everybody else wants their child to do that, too. It’s never been a thing before.”

A silver lining: The Cornells are a family that loves travel. They had three trips planned over the coming year, and have canceled two of them.

In light of the added time at home, they made the decision to add a new family member sooner than they had originally planned. Three-month-old Ginny, an Old English sheepdog, has joined the household and the family’s other dog, a schnoodle named Dobby. With Tom Cornell’s being an English teacher, both the pups’ names are inspired by the Harry Potter book series.

“I wouldn’t say to just go out and get a dog on a whim, by any means,” Samantha Cornell said. “But it has been a blessing to us. It makes sure we get outside once an hour. It’s been a little ray of sunlight in a very difficult time.”

What they are telling their kids about COVID-19: Again, Cornell has high praise for her children’s schools. She said both boys, especially Harry, have been taught to be media savvy, and teachers talked to them about the pandemic before schools were closed.

“They framed it so well, giving them facts and letting them know that kids are not at as great a risk as some others, and that really set the tone for us at home.”

Cornell pointed out that her children and their friends “are pretty data-driven. They are already concerned about climate change. … This is not the first big thing they have been worried about. While this is a biggie, I don’t know that at this point this is the biggest thing they have had to roll with.”

Keeping the big picture in mind: “It’s been a great opportunity to discuss people in their lives they don’t see too much, but value. For instance, we’ve had talks about our crossing guard: How is she doing and how can we find out? There have been a lot of positives with talking about how we’re all in this together.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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