Starting the New Normal…However Long It Lasts: Part Three

And so, with the blink of an eye, we find ourselves one month into quarantine.  On March 19 the Moroccan government announced the State of Emergency and declared it would take effect on March 20.  In the weeks leading up to it we got GWA ready and transitioned student learning to an online platform, and prepared ourselves at home as best we could for whatever twists and turns of life we might experience under the inevitable quarantine.  Then it began, and the four of us – Audrey, Brian, Charlotte, and Zak – began to establish routines and to discover how to live as a family of adults together in one apartment during a world pandemic.

An immediate adjustment for us, as we presume everyone globally in these circumstances also has made, came with the need to reconceive space professionally and personally.  With three of us involved in GWA’s Online School (Audrey and Brian as administrators, and Charlotte teaching her two-year-old Nursery students online), we had to find the balance between divvying up individual working space and sharing limited real estate (and internet signal) in the apartment.  Informally we each staked ground at our dining room table, evolving into small but clearly-established territories that let all three of us work next to each other as long as not more than one person had a virtual meeting at a time. In our first Crisis Management Team and Senior Leadership Team meetings, we both joined from the table with Brian muting his mic and turning off his sound to avoid feedback echoing into the meeting from Audrey’s on-his-right computer.  But this had the strange effect of Audrey’s sound-activated but non-speaking image hitting everyone’s Google Hangouts or Zoom screens whenever Brian spoke in meetings from his seat to Audrey’s left. So Brian started relocating from the joint “office” dining room table to our bedroom to join our joint meetings in that wifi-deprived room, using the hotspot on his phone to connect his computer.

For those meetings with just one of us on at a time, not only do we have to check schedules with each other so we do not double-book (or so that the double-booker has to go to a bedroom for their meeting), but when working quietly next to someone in a virtual meeting we have to respect the meeting’s invisible “office walls” to prevent jumping into each other’s meetings just because we are proximate.

Personally, having four people in a three-bedroom apartment (with stocked kitchen and pantry, balcony, roof, and neighbors with whom we can socialize distantly) provides more than adequate space.  Still, after nearly a year of Charlotte and Zak living in his family’s Oulfa home and us enjoying empty-nesting, we all had to renorm to respect each other’s needs, preferences, desires, and even idiosyncrasies.  At the same time, we enjoyed the cultural mixing that occured, perhaps represented best by the chicken and vegetable tagine Zak prepared for dinner one night, spiced with garlic salt and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning that entered our family life during our years living in Louisiana.

We have also enjoyed how social distancing has leveled the playing field of socializing (distantly) as time zones have stood out as the only thing that distinguishes people not inhabiting the same abode.  During Holy Week, Brian followed the same digital resource prepared by the Diocese of Phoenix that his church choir friends back at our Scottsdale parish used and watched the same online sharing of music that they watched, leading him to comment that in a strange way the social distancing keeping us all in our respective homes made him feel closer to them.  Even more digitally cool was when Brian was FaceTiming with his sister in Washington State while Charlotte did the same with our former au pair in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, leading sister and au pair to catch up screen to screen via Casablanca as Brian and Charlotte held the phones up to face each other.

The new normal we are living still allows for things and routines in our lives from before, but often with new distinctly COVID-19 twists.  We shop for supplies; but “we” now means Brian, and weekly shopping on Saturday mornings now means supply runs every two weeks preferably not on a weekend day in order to have fewer people around.  Shopping preparation does not start with Audrey planning out menus around which to build shopping lists; now it means adding to a running list kept on the refrigerator door of what we hope Brian will find at the store.  Mostly things remain well-stocked: on one trip he finds no mushrooms or garlic, and on another trip no broccoli or Audrey’s favorite peach-mango tea. Stores restock, though, so he usually can find later what he could not find when he first looked for it.  Except for limes. Brian has seen no juicy, fresh, imported limes – begging to join their friends tequila, Cointreau, and Grand Marnier for a fiesta in a pitcher – since shortly after Morocco’s borders closed. That goes for other imports as well. Barilla pasta, shipped from Italy, was as common here as in the U.S. until Italy blew up with COVID-19.  Then pasta made in Morocco increased its market share on grocery shelves to fill space Barilla’s absence left empty. We have no shortage of TP, other paper products, and additional staples of life, though; so we suffer mainly from First World Problems in our Second World Country, compared to the perception we have of Third World challenges about which people keep posting they are suffering back in the U.S.  Another big change in shopping prep is that before Brian brings our bags and baskets down to the car he gears up like a CDC researcher heading into a BSL-4 containment lab (the highest level of protection) with gloves, mask, the same jeans and jacket he wears only for shopping, and a generous supply of disinfecting wipes for the shopping cart, his hands, his phone, and anything else that may need wiping down.

Another tweaked similarity of the new normal to the old normal is deliveries.  Before we did not order restaurant deliveries, so their closing with the quarantine did not affect us.  We wondered if we could still get our weekly organic produce delivery from Le Ferme Bleu on Friday afternoons.  No problem! Better still, we discovered that Amoud Boulangerie et Patisserie delivers during the quarantine, so we have fresh baguettes and croissants.  And our favorite place to buy wine in Casablanca, Grand Sud Import, sent out their list of available wines by email so that Brian could put together a group order with others in the apartments wishing to join in a delivery before stores stop selling wine for Ramadan.

Much of our adjustment to quarantine life comes with the need to plan for contingencies.  We both have participated in webinars and virtual meetings with international school leaders around the world discussing every aspect of the COVID-19 impact one can imagine.  One webinar we both joined this week noted that in typical times schools plan through Strategic Planning, but in times like this schools cannot lean on such clear plans defined narrowly; instead, they must plan through Scenario Planning to accommodate a broad range of possibilities that allow institutions to move into any circumstance as nimbly and effectively as possible.  Such is the state of our lives as well in this new normal.

Professionally, how long Online School will continue and what adjustments we will need to make through the end of the school year stand as overarching themes.  While the Moroccan government recently extended the State of Emergency from its first-projected April 20 ending to a new target of May 20, even lifting the nationwide quarantine on May 20 would still require decisions about when we actually get back on campus and how we manage social distancing and other factors once everyone returns.  For months the master skill from the panolpy of 21st Century pedagogy has been comfort with ambiguity as exploring the range of possible scenarios resembles predicting the path of a hurricane that could head north up the east coast or dogleg around Florida to make landfall in Alabama.  Even if the May 20 date holds, we need to determine what that means for MAP, WIDA, AP, and other testing we typically do near year’s end; for restarting our After School Activities program; for our senior class graduation events; for final exams; for returning textbooks, library books, and technology devices checked out from the school; for closing out the year with our staff; and for myriad other things that in any other year happen with near-automaticity.

The professional impact has also affected our upcoming transition from Morocco to Panama at the end of this school year.  Last week Audrey was supposed to fly to Panama for several days of transition meetings at the International School of Panama with people across the ISP community from the current Director and staff, to the leadership team she will inherit, to students and parents, and to the board.  Needless to say, that never happened because both Morocco and Panama remain in quarantine with no flights in or out. Instead, ISP set Audrey up with daily virtual meetings that she joins after finishing her GWA workdays. Together we were supposed to return to Panama again in May to find a place to live and for Audrey to have more transition meetings.  That also will not happen. On the bright side, though, now Brian will be able to have one more birthday in Morocco before we move.

“Before we move” is the big “comfort with ambiguity” challenge we face personally.  Morocco and Panama have run fairly tandem in COVID-19 circumstances. Panama started its quarantine just five days after Morocco’s launch, and as the number of confirmed cases grow daily in both countries, Panama consistently stays a little under 1500 total cases ahead of Morocco.  In order for us to move at the end of June as planned, we need both Morocco to open up to flights so we can leave and Panama to open up to flights so we can enter. Current projections are that we should be able to do that, but only time will tell. So for weeks we have wondered about a new challenge for international educators:  What do people do when their time is up in one place – job, housing, etc. – but they cannot yet go to their new place? Another challenge is in trying to set up shipping of our things from Casablanca to Panama City. We were in the process of arranging for a container shipment, with pickup in early June and drop off in early July, when the world went crazy.  The company with which we were dealing suddenly stopped responding to our outreach, then finally offered a feeble, “Our shippers currently cannot give you an actual quote or make a contract with you.” They told us we would have a quote in late-April. Now that we are in late-April they are telling us late-May…Oh, and do we still want an early-June pick up?  We think now that we will likely get rid of the bigger things we were going to ship, save money (because even before this hit the cost of container shipping was much more than we had expected), and arrange extra parcels to fly with us to Panama once we actually can go.

So we live our repetitive routines like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, hoping that each retread day lets us learn better how to achieve our ultimate goals.  Indeed, we have taken a few lessons to heart:

In quarantine, days move at a slower pace, yet time seems to fly by each day.

Food exchanges with neighbors, especially our downstairs friends Rachid and Nisrine, bring bright smiles to faces both of those receiving and those delivering.

While our conscious selves have adjusted to quarantine life fairly well, our subconscious selves still wrestle with underlying angst as we have weird dreams…even weird dreams about weird dreams.

We enjoy sunsets each night because we are home instead of staying late at school, 300 steps away from the celestial artwork that now brings a curtain call to each of our days.

Most important, we have renewed appreciation for simple things in life, with a renewed feeling of being blessed with all we have instead of mistaking what we merely want for things we think we need.  Blessings come to us in the most unexpected ways. Hamdullilah. Deo gratias. Thanks be to God.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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