- Sarah Cronin
This past year has been a singularly unusual one, so much so that we, and our kids, will likely be talking about it for the rest of our lives. But despite the awfulness it's wrought — the sickness and fear, the lives lost, the separation from loved ones — we've kept on trucking. Families celebrated first birthdays and first communions. Kids started and finished school. Teens learned to drive and applied to college.
Not even a worldwide pandemic could stop these important rites of passage. For many families this year, blowing out candles and finding ways to celebrate however we could has been a way to hold on to a much-needed sense of normalcy.
As vaccination rates rise, and families start thinking about the future, we set out to document how local parents and kids experienced the momentous milestones in their lives during the COVID-19 era. Read on for a few of their stories.
'I Made Him a Cake'
Celebrating baby's first birthday
- Molly Conant with husband Eric and son Jules
Molly Conant and Eric Seitz welcomed their son, Julian, on March 28, 2020, just a few weeks after the pandemic became serious in Vermont.
"We feel really lucky that we've had this fun, cute little distraction while also having our hearts break for the world and what everybody's going through" said Conant, a Burlington resident and owner of Queen City jewelry studio Rackk & Ruin.
For Conant and Seitz, one downside of giving birth to Julian, also known as Jules, during the pandemic was that they were unable to have their doula present at the birth. They had worked with Amanda Young of Burlington's Shanti Mama Wellness during Molly's pregnancy to develop a birth wish, which Molly described as similar to a birth plan but with lots of flexibility.
Conant ended up being induced a month early due to preeclampsia. Because of COVID-19 guidelines prohibiting multiple people in the delivery room, Young couldn't be there. Instead, she spoke with Seitz on the phone, offering guidance on how he could support his wife through this scenario.
"There were a couple of births where I was not able to join [the families] at the at the hospital, so I had to say goodbye at their doorstep," Young recalled. "That is really hard when you're transitioning from home to the hospital and your nervous system is kind of going through this shift and you want to have continuity of care," she said.
- Courtesy of Heather Wood
- Emmet's first birthday
In some cases, families found silver linings to having a new addition amid a pandemic. Devin Wood, owner of Burlington's Seven Symbols Tattoo, got unexpected extra paternity leave, said his wife, Heather. The Woods, who live in St. Albans, welcomed son Emmet on February 20, 2020.
"Having Devin home was awesome because he got to spend more time with [Emmet], and I actually got to take a shower," said Heather, who has been caring for Emmet full time since he was born.
Seitz, Jules' dad and co-owner of Burlington's Pitchfork Farm, identified another perk of parenting a newborn under quarantine: "There's been little to no FOMO."
After 12 months of pits and peaks, both families have celebrated their youngsters' first laps around the sun. At the time of their interview, Conant and Seitz were gearing up for Jules' big day. Conant anticipated the celebration would involve a meal with her folks ("My parents are both vaccinated and they live locally, which is really wonderful," she explained) and, in keeping with a tradition from her childhood, streamers.
Like most of Emmet's first holidays, said Heather, his birthday was spent with just his parents. "Devin went and got balloons and decorated our living room ... and I made him a cake," she said. "We still threw a party regardless [of the fact] that we were the only ones there to appreciate it."
"He got some presents and he opened some stuff," she added, "but he, as all children, would rather play with the paper and the box."
Both sets of parents have kept extended family members connected to babies Emmet and Jules through texted photos, videos and virtual chats. Still, when it comes to birthday number two, "I'm hoping we can at least have some family around," said Heather. "That would definitely be nice."
'She Doesn't Know What She's Missing'
Attending school for the first time
- Courtesy of Shannon Planck
- Beatrice heads to school
It's about a 25-minute drive from Barre City to Waits River Valley School in East Corinth. Shannon Planck and her 6-year-old daughter, Beatrice, pass the time by singing along to the Frozen 2 soundtrack. Beatrice's favorite songs are "Into the Unknown" and "Show Yourself." Planck misses her usual NPR broadcasts, but she's grateful to be driving Beatrice to full-time, in-person school — an experience many kids have missed out on this year.
"I think she's had a great year, honestly. We're very lucky," Planck said. Kindergarten certainly looks different in a pandemic: Kids spend more time at their desks than circled up on the rug, can't share art supplies or Legos, and learn all of their subjects in the same classroom instead of traveling to the art room or the library.
It's made Planck a little sad, but it doesn't seem to bother Beatrice. "She doesn't know what she's missing," Planck said.
Planck had intended for Beatrice to start school in the Barre Unified Union School District. But when Barre announced a hybrid model, Planck knew that would be impossible — she's a single parent and works full time at Waits River Valley as a speech pathologist. Plus, she has two other daughters, 4-year-old Millie and toddler Clarice. She chose instead to bring Beatrice with her, an option for employees, so her eldest daughter could be in school five days a week.
Beatrice loves school. She and her classmates dance to songs like NSYNC's "Bye Bye Bye" and Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road." They have Forest Fridays, when they play in the woods and have even made s'mores over a campfire. At recess, the kids are allowed to take off their masks, and Beatrice and her friends play coyotes; "You howl like one," she explained in a recent Zoom interview. She's super into unicorns and has started reading the Unicorn Academy Series with her parents. The books were introduced to her by Miss Amy, keeper of the library cart.
"Miss Amy says, if you don't bring your books back, she'll turn you into a newt," Beatrice said.
- Courtesy of Shannon Planck
- Millie's first day of preschool
But things haven't been smooth sailing for many kids, especially those with part-time schedules. Planck's middle daughter, Millie, had it rough adjusting to preschool for the first time. Millie attends just two days a week, spending the rest of her days with her dad or grandma.
"She's shy to begin with," Planck said. "It was very, very hard on her to get in the habit of going to school for two days and then five days off."
Millie would burst into tears at the mention of school. Her father had to carry her into the building a few times. It didn't help that her program, at Barre City Elementary, kept closing and reopening due to COVID-19 concerns.
"She was saying she didn't like school, she didn't have any friends there. She just didn't want to go," Planck said. "Now she's happy, but it took until February."
Millie has adjusted and now says she likes the other kids, playing with blocks and singing the Hello Song with her teacher.
For Planck, it's just about keeping her kids' lives as normal as possible.
"She doesn't understand about the virus. She doesn't understand there's a pandemic going on," Planck said of Millie. "We just talk about how people are getting sick, and when everyone's all better, we'll be able to see friends again."
'A Memorable Experience'
Religious coming-of-age ceremonies
- Courtesy of Sarah Kleinman
- Maggie during her Zoom bat mitzvah
For months, Sarah Kleinman of Burlington had been planning her daughter Maggie's bat mitzvah for June 20, 2020. Kleinman had booked an event space at Smugglers' Notch and ordered invitations for around 100 people. Then the pandemic hit. Kleinman set up a website for guests to keep them updated on changing plans. The family pondered postponing the event — which marks a child's passage into adulthood in the Jewish faith. Ultimately, they decided to have Maggie's bat mitzvah at their own home, via Zoom so that loved ones could attend. It was Ohavi Zedek Synagogue's first Zoom bat or bar mitzvah. Since then, the synagogue has done three others, with more planned for later in the spring and summer, said Hebrew School principal Naomi Barell.
In the week leading up to Maggie's big day, the synagogue brought the Torah scroll — a handwritten version of the five books of Moses — to the family's home. It felt "terrifying" to be responsible for the fragile religious relic, Kleinman said. On June 20, as planned, Maggie became a bat mitzvah virtually, while her older brother and parents, all barefoot, looked on and the family dog padded around in the background. The rabbi and cantor Zoomed in from their own homes. A flower delivery person rang the doorbell in the middle of the service.
While Maggie was a little disappointed that she didn't get to have a big party with friends and family from out of town, Kleinman said, it was "a memorable experience in and of itself because of its unique nature."
- Courtesy of Katie Nunn
- Cameron (left) during his first communion
Students at Christ the King School prepare for their First Communion in second grade. The ceremony — which marks the first time a Catholic receives the sacrament of the Eucharist — typically happens in early May. Because churches were still shut down at that time, director of admissions and school advancement Jon Hughes said, the Catholic school postponed the event until summer. Instead of doing the ceremony in a large group of more than 20 students, they spread the ceremonies over four weekends, with just a handful of families per weekend.
Normally, Katie Nunn's extended family and in-laws would have come from as far away as Ohio to see her son, Cameron, receive his first communion. That's what happened when her older daughter went through the experience five years ago. Instead, just a small group of family members who lived close by attended in July. Cameron, in a dark suit, yellow tie and grey mask, took part in the ceremony with five girls, all wearing white dresses, masks and flower garlands in their hair. "We tried to make it as normal for him as possible," Nunn said.
After the ceremony, Nunn's family hosted a small outdoor gathering under a tent with a fitting party favor: small bottles of hand sanitizer with Cameron's name and the date that Nunn had ordered from Etsy.
Abby Luck's son, Griffin, also received his first communion last summer. Griffin was nervous, Luck said, but an email from the priest, Monsignor John McDermott, laying out how everything would be done, helped to calm his nerves.
Luck's daughter, Audrey, will receive her first communion this May, the same time of year it was done pre-pandemic. Luck's parents live nearby, she said, and they missed out on a number of Christ the King traditions this school year, such as the annual Christmas concert, volunteering to serve hot lunch in the cafeteria and Grandparents Day. Now fully vaccinated, they'll be able to attend Audrey's first communion without any worries.
Her in-laws likely won't make it; they live on the other side of a still-closed border in New Brunswick, Canada, and haven't seen their grandkids since the summer of 2019.
'I Finally Got in'
Getting a driver's license
- Courtesy of Robbie Morse
- Robbie Morse behind the wheel
For Robbie Morse of Westford, getting a driver's license felt like a big deal. The now-17-year-old high school junior was counting the days last year before he could take his road test, which was originally scheduled for March 28, 2020. Morse had already completed his driver's education class through Associates in Driving, a private driving school in Williston. His final step was to demonstrate to an official examiner that he knew how to drive from point A to point B safely.
For Morse, earning his license was about more than just gaining independence. It also meant that he would be able to drive himself to Essex High School and to Essex Equipment, where he works, without relying on his parents to leave their own jobs to chauffeur him around.
But 10 days before his appointment, Morse's plan hit a major speed bump. On March 18, Gov. Phil Scott ordered the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend all in-person transactions. That meant that all driver's license examinations, including in-car road tests, were postponed indefinitely.
Expecting that he would eventually hear back from the DMV to reschedule, Morse waited. And waited.
Three months later, when the call never came, Morse began feeling frustrated. "I was like, I'll probably be able to vote and drink alcohol before I get my license," he said.
Unbeknownst to Morse, on June 3 the governor directed the DMV to resume driver's license exams starting on June 8. It wasn't until a coworker told Morse that he had just passed his own road test that Morse called and rescheduled. "After three months of waiting," he said, "I finally got in."
On June 12, Morse showed up for his test. In addition to wearing the obligatory mask, he also had to roll down all the windows in the car and turn on the air conditioning to keep fresh air circulating. Despite the distractions, Morse passed on his first attempt.
The pandemic didn't just create headaches for new drivers seeking their licenses. Driving instructors had to tailor their in-vehicle lessons to abide by the state's mandate to keep students six feet apart, an impossibility in a driver's ed car.
"By our own standards, we're not supposed to be out in a vehicle alone with a kid," explained Gabriella Netsch, owner of Yankee Driving School in southern Vermont. In order to protect minors from potential abuse or exploitation, driver's ed instructors try never to be in a vehicle with just one student.
Ironically, Morse couldn't remember exactly where he went the first time he was allowed to drive alone. "It was basically to take the car out without my parents screaming and yelling at me every step of the way," he said with a laugh.
Morse has since bought himself "an old beater" — a BMW 3 Series with a manual transmission, which he uses to make videos that he posts on YouTube. After attending the Team O'Neil Rally School in Dalton, N.H., he got into the niche motorsport of drifting, in which drivers intentionally over-steer in order to put the rear tires into controlled skids on turns.
"I have a few friends who got their licenses because their parents made them, and they never drive, just back and forth to school. They never go on car rides by themselves," Morse said. "I just find that crazy."
'A New Way to Look at It'
Finishing high school
- Courtesy of Evelyn Monje
- Winooski senior Evelyn Monje learning at home
Last spring, when Alex Smart was a junior at Montpelier High School, she expected to spend her April vacation on a college road-trip tour with her family. They planned to "hit" nine schools on the East Coast, Smart said.
But the pandemic, which struck the East Coast about a month earlier, forced a change of plans.
"Obviously, we had to cancel that trip," said Smart, now an 18-year-old senior at the high school. "So YouTube was our best choice."
Her family gathered around the computer and watched videos about college life that were made and posted by students.
"It was a new way to look at it," Smart said.
It was also an early manifestation of the altered — and often virtual — experience Smart confronted as she applied to college and made plans for the future. There would be half a dozen canceled SAT dates and, ultimately, test-taking in a mask at her high school. (Smart said she's happy to wear a mask, of course, but the facial covering heightened the worry of an already nervous test-taker.)
It wasn't only navigating what comes next that's been different for Smart but also the tenor of her final school year in Montpelier. She and her classmates missed junior prom and anticipate that there will be no senior prom. The promise of a graduation ceremony is uncertain.
Smart expressed empathy for the profound losses suffered by so many and noted the importance of adhering to public health measures "for the greater good." Yet she said she's come to realize it's OK to be sad for the things she and her friends have missed out on. Much of that is simply being together.
"It's very lonely compared to last year," Smart said.
Smart was accepted to Barnard College early decision and will attend, in person, in the fall. As it turns out, the liberal arts school in Manhattan — like many colleges around the country — didn't require SAT scores as part of its application, after all.
"It's my dream school," she said.
For Evelyn Monje, a senior at Winooski High School, her last year of school has doubled as her first year in college. She's completed her high school requirements and is enrolled in the Early College program at the Community College of Vermont, where she takes four remote courses. She plans to major in sociology at the University of Vermont this fall, which she'll enter with credits from the CCV program.
Monje, 18, described a few challenges of taking virtual classes. On the social front, she said she misses seeing her friends on a day-to-day basis. In terms of schoolwork, Monje said it's more difficult to organize and manage her time without in-person instruction. She noted, too, that her virtual college classes make it harder to talk with teachers, fully understand their expectations and "to really advocate for your education."
Last year, when she took in-person CCV courses, Monje appreciated the chance to stay after class to talk with fellow students and form a study group.
But it's also the little things, the rhythms and rituals that make up school life, that Monje misses: PE class, when her group of pals always seemed to win when they were on the same team.
"We were so excited to all be seniors, with privileges to leave at lunch and go off campus," Monje said. "I miss hugging my friends and messing around."