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caption: Beatrice, 4, spends time outdoors playing with a new friend she met during the pandemic, on Tuesday, May 19, in Seattle. Their parents set up laundry baskets as a barrier to keep them physically distanced.
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Beatrice, 4, spends time outdoors playing with a new friend she met during the pandemic, on Tuesday, May 19, in Seattle. Their parents set up laundry baskets as a barrier to keep them physically distanced.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Kathleen Donahoe

As kids melt down, Seattle parents reconsider social distancing

The temperature was in the low 60s in Seattle on May 19, and two little neighbor girls giggled and played in a lush green front yard. They each had Barbie dolls and standing dollhouses.

Between the girls were laundry baskets lined up to form a barrier to keep them six feet apart.

“I wish we could go see grandma,” one of the girls said, on behalf of the doll.

“Do you have a temperature?” the other girl asked.

Kathleen Donahoe, the mother of one of the girls, had sheltered her two children not just from the world, but from the news of the pandemic. She didn’t want them to worry and be fearful of Covid-19.

But here was her daughter Beatrice, age 4, “working through it with her dolls,” Donahoe said, and a girl she had just met days earlier, after Beatrice sparked up a friendship by yelling to the neighbor girl from her yard.

It is seldom acknowledged that children have made some of the biggest sacrifices during this pandemic. While they are the least likely age group to contract or spread coronavirus, they are the ones who are no longer able to attend school or socialize with their friends, in this bid to protect society.

And now, eight weeks into Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, requiring Washingtonians to stay apart, parents are reporting the negative effects quarantine is having on their children, and the creative ways they are mitigating their children’s suffering from social isolation.

Social distancing can impact children differently, said James Mazza, a psychologist and professor at the University of Washington. He said for a lot of kids, social connections are part of their developmental process.

“Having to be socially isolated now, or doing your social interactions via Zoom or via the computer, prohibits them from being able to kind of explore those natural environments that kind of help push them to the next level,” Mazza said.

Children who are struggling with the impacts of long-term social distancing might appear more temperamental, and their moods might present as more severe, Mazza said.

Serena Fabela of Crown Hill, north of Ballard, said for her family – herself, husband, and two daughters, ages 6 and 4 – there are good and not-so-good days.

Living in their apartment, they use a color-coded mood meter to check in with each other. Red represents anger. Green means they feel calm or relaxed. Yellow stands for happiness. Blue means they felt sad, hurt, or lonely.

Blue days are the hardest.

“I think for our kids, they are so resilient, but you can tell that it's affecting them,” Fabela said. She said sometimes “late at night, my oldest will start just pouring out her heart.”

“‘I want to see my teacher. Why can’t I just touch my friend?’”

To meet her daughter's social needs, Fabela will arrange video chats online between her daughter and her friends. Other times she takes her oldest to visit classmates in person. The children play, while maintaining a safe distance.

Fabela said being in the same space as another child makes the difference.

“When she checks in every week with her kindergarten class on Zoom, It's like, everybody's talking over each other and it’s just a little bit chaotic,” Fabela said. “But when she's in person, you could just tell, her face just lights up.”

Julia Marcus, a professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, spoke with Seattle Now’s Patricia Murphy about quarantine fatigue -- the psychological effects people are feeling from being isolated, and the need to connect with others.

“I think there’s kind of a dichotomy that’s been set up between staying at home indefinitely … versus going back to business as usual,” Marcus said. “I want the world to think about a spectrum of risk and there being these choices in between that we might be able to make that will allow us to live some semblance of our lives.”

Early in the AIDS epidemic, in the 1980s, the message for gay men was “there’s no safe way to have sex,” Marcus said. This messaging changed when the community released guidance for “safer sex.”

In doing so, communities began to acknowledge the idea that people could not abstain from sex forever -- and provided people tools to reduce risk and make their own calculated decisions.

When it comes to the pandemic, Marcus said, evidence shows being outdoors is much lower risk. That there isn’t a lot of evidence of transmission taking place during quick-passing encounters of people outside.

“It’s probably not zero risk, but probably much lower risk than going and sitting in a crowded restaurant for an extended period of time with a lot of people,” she said.

To mitigate impacts from social isolation, Holly Cooper, her husband and three children, ages 7, 5, and 2, formed “a social bubble.” This means they expanded their nuclear family to include two other families, but then limited their contact with the outside world.

“It's a handful. It's a circus over here,” Cooper said by phone, with her children playing in the background.

Cooper, a small-business owner with a background in biology, at first attempted to keep her family away from other humans. And then the weather improved -- and neighbors and kids played in their respective front yards.

Cooper chatted with her neighbors, and through some light negotiation, they agreed to socialize together, bubbling themselves off from largely the rest of society.

“We kind of eventually came to the idea that we are okay with mingling with others, as long as they feel comfortable, " Cooper said. “As long as our perceived risk, quote, unquote, is pretty low between us.”

No one has pre-existing conditions. Groceries are delivered. No one has contact with elderly.

But in return, the children are allowed to play – up close – without masks. And the adults feel free to mingle at their usual, comfortable distance.

Cooper’s two daughters enjoy spending time with the twin girls next door. Together they play hopscotch and run on the sidewalk. Cooper’s “little guy” plays with an 18-month-old boy from another family close by.

For now, this arrangement meets her children’s needs.

“These are neighbors that we knew, but they were not, you know, our closest friends before all of this," Cooper said. "They've kind of become the main people right now that we're seeing regularly."

Jeannie Bastasch, physical education teacher at Greenwood Elementary, has brainstormed ways to connect kids through the pandemic, keeping equity at top of mind and a goal of reaching as many kids as possible.

“I'm really anxious about putting our money where our mouth is, and not going to this panic about the need to catch up academically,” Bastasch said. “I'm really worried that that's going to take the lead in where these social needs should take the lead.”

Bastasch has come up with options: small group online chats, one-on-one meetings in person (at a safe distance), pen pals, and the possibility of being a chalk buddy -- where students would exchange chalk drawings and messages outside each other's home.

To bring the school community together, McDonald International Elementary has started a sunflower project with students, Bastasch said. Families pick up packets of sunflower seeds and plant them around their home.

“The thought is that in a few months, we would see these bold, bright, happy images of where our families live,” Bastasch said. "And that we're doing something as a big community."

Bastasch has made a slight adjustment to the Greenwood sunflower project.

A few students are truly in need of in-person interaction from a safe distance, Bastasch said.

So, with the help of other adults, some fourth and fifth graders will be allowed to meet in person to scoop sunflower seeds into little envelopes. On the outside of the packet, they’ll write positive messages or create artwork.

She’s also thought about other meetups that are “physically distanced” – a term the World Health Organization has switched to, over social distancing, which implies isolating yourself.

Bastasch has plans for a physically distanced group chalk art project, where chalk is not exchanged between students, facilitators wear masks and gloves, and children are able to partake in a group project together, safely.

“I'm definitely thinking about all the details of how to administer something like this without the virus being able to spread,” Bastasch said.

Among those struggling with their children is Beth, a Greenwood mom who asked not to include her last name to protect her 6-year-old son’s identity. Beth said she is less worried about academics, and more concerned about her son’s emotional health as she watches him withdraw from school activities.

School work reminds him of what he’s missing out on, she said, and every week he seems to get worse.

“He just has giant meltdowns. He's sobbing,” Beth said. “We just decided that we can't do it. We can’t every day make him go through that, for his mental health.”

For now, Beth has put a hold on any assigned school work, although she and her husband stay in touch with her son’s kindergarten teacher. At this point, the teacher is happy to receive any work from students.

“This emotional stuff is what I really worry about affecting him long term,” Beth said. “I haven’t felt like I’ve gotten any clear picture on how society or schools or anyone is going to help them through that.”