"Before the pandemic we were moving in so many different directions in my house. It was just go, go, go all the time," Jessica Clark said. "When all of that stopped, it made you say: Was all that really important? Do we want to go back to that life?"
Thinking about it brings Clark to tears. They now spend more time as a tight-knit family unit whose members lift each other up when one of them is down. It's a silver lining of the pandemic, which for the Clarks and so many brought isolation, fear and anxiety — but also a forced slowing down that people may have never otherwise accepted.
The week before schools closed last spring, Clark's husband was seeing the early impact of the novel coronavirus at the O'Connor respiratory department. They had started keeping a clothes hamper outside the house where he would change before coming inside. He warned her not to go into work. She emailed her principal and teacher and told them she was taking off Friday, March 13. She didn't feel safe coming in. That Friday, Santa Clara County ordered all public schools in the county to close for what everyone expected would be an extended spring break.
"I didn't know that was going to be my last time seeing that classroom for seven months," Clark said.
Clark's and her children's lives moved online. Instead of reading books to kindergartners and holding their hands while they learn to use scissors for the first time, she became the "mute master" on Zoom — muting a chaotic screen of 5- and 6-year-olds trying to learn online.
For her older children, now a Gunn High School freshman and senior, distance learning wasn't the same as in-person school and they missed their friends, but they mostly managed.
But online education was near impossible for Clark's youngest daughter, now a fifth grader at Juana Briones Elementary School, who struggles with anxiety. She stopped logging on to her classes and couldn't access therapy online. (She has an individualized education plan, or IEP, for anxiety and receives specialized services.)
So when the school district started talking, controversially for some, about elementary schools reopening in the fall, Clark reacted both as an employee and a mother watching her child fall through the cracks at home. She felt terrified about the health risks of working in person but knew firsthand there were children who desperately needed in-person support.
"If I was going to be a parent wanting her to go back then I needed to do that at my job as well," she said.
Clark was part of the first group of teachers and students to return to elementary campuses in October. She couldn't help but feel like a guinea pig, but she said her husband's experience of working at a hospital helped ground her. Throughout the fall, she watched heated debates over reopening intensify in Zoomed school board meetings and on social media, pitting teachers against parents.
She said she felt confident in the district's safety protocols, but it was troubling not being able to control students' and families' behaviors outside the classroom. Her students, too young to know any better, would blurt out that their family was planning to travel to Hawaii over the holidays or that they were allowed to have playdates without masks on.
"It was a little hard to stomach when my husband is working 15-hour days," Clark said. "It almost felt like there were two worlds going on — some were sacrificing a lot, and some weren't sacrificing anything."
Her fears eased over time as she adjusted to a new way of interacting with students — and especially when she saw them benefiting from being back in school.
"It was such a joy to see them on the first day of school. It was like they came to life," she said.
Unlike in the spring, when they moved to distance learning with students they already knew, this year's class only knew each other and their teacher as squares on a computer screen.
"Some kids you would think were alright on Zoom and then they get into the classroom and you see a different side to them or a different personality. Was all this going outside the camera view?" she said.
Clark didn't hesitate to send her youngest daughter back to school for hybrid learning when the option became available, and it's been a "game-changer," Clark said. In the fall, she initially let her older children decide if they would want to return, back when district officials thought high schools would be able to reopen in January — but has since changed her mind. Now, a year into the pandemic and with options for high schoolers to come to campus to Zoom from classrooms on the horizon, "there's no question," she said. "I know they need to go back. I see that they need that social interaction with their peers."
A year into their new life, the family has settled into a routine. Her husband, who's now vaccinated, leaves for work at 5 a.m. Clark leaves at 7:30 a.m. to be at Duveneck three days a week, where she wears an N95 mask and has learned to talk loudly over the industrial air purifier whirring in the back of the classroom. The oldest Clark daughter drives her sister to school in the mornings and makes sure her younger brother (who no longer plays club soccer, his busy pre-pandemic activity) is up for his online classes.
Clark sees herself in educators who are nervous about coming back to work this spring and is now in the position of sharing several months of reopening experience, both the good and the challenging. The vaccine will make a huge difference in teachers' comfort levels, she said. She was excited and relieved to get her first vaccine shot on Monday.
The biggest challenge of the last 12 months, Clark said, remains living with the stress of the unknown. What if she or her husband is exposed to the coronavirus and brings it home? When will she be able to hug her parents or get together with her siblings, freely, for a family barbecue?
"I'm not usually a person who's anxious. I seriously have had some anxiety just trying to keep everything together and afloat," Clark said. "We're all just trying to keep our head above water and get to that finish line, wherever it is. Just like everyone else, right?"
But she comes back to that silver lining: family. She got to spend more time than she would have otherwise with her oldest daughter before she leaves for college. They talk about mental health and tell each other that everyone's allowed to have bad days.
"It's been a really hard year. When one person is up, someone might be down but you help each other meet in the middle and bring that person back up where maybe we didn't do that before as a family so much," Clark said. "We know now that we're a really tight-knit family."
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