By Julianne Reis
March of 2020 feels like several lifetimes ago. Back then, the word "pandemic" felt unfamiliar and the world was consumed with news of lockdowns abroad. It was that month that the first patient in the state of New York was diagnosed with COVID-19 and then transferred to a New York City hospital where my husband and I work (he is a physician and I am a medical speech-language pathologist.)
In the blink of an eye everything seemed to change. Hospital systems like ours were overwhelmed with hundreds and then thousands of patients being diagnosed with COVID-19. New York, as well as many other communities, swiftly established stay-at-home orders and closed all non-essential businesses in an effort to slow the spread. With both my husband and I being exposed to COVID-19 patients at work, our lives rapidly became consumed with the fear of sickness and death.
There was so much unknown. Every day we were learning new information about the virus - its transmissibility, the effectiveness of personal protective equipment, and guidelines for protecting the community. I remember hearing a quote that healthcare workers were "flying the plane while fixing it," and that was truly how it felt. It became apparent that the intense stress of the unknown was not exclusive to healthcare workers – it was felt by everyone, in every corner of the world. Financial hardship, scarcity of resources, and difficult adjustments to work-life balance were brought to the forefront, and continue to be present for so many.
As unprepared as I felt coming to terms with life during a pandemic, I felt even less prepared to explain it to my two young children. I watched their world change almost overnight as schools closed, classes and activities moved online, birthday parties and celebrations were cancelled, and people were told to stay home. My curious four-year-old had a lot of questions, all while learning to express and process her emotions. Not being able to see family in other parts of the country has been particularly difficult for her. At a time when most adults were struggling to come to terms with the pandemic, answering tough questions from little ones was a challenge.
It was then I realized I wanted to help. I wanted to create a resource that allowed parents and caregivers to facilitate these challenging conversations. I began taking notes and observing the events that were unfolding from the perspective of my two children. Soon after, I reached out to a fellow speech-language pathologist and artist, Kaylee Viets, to discuss some of my ideas. She lives in West Harlem, where she was witness to the rapid and dramatic changes that occurred in New York City as subways emptied, streets quieted, and stores closed. Kaylee brought her unique perspective to the project and created beautiful illustrations that captured the childlike innocence of the unknown.
As the pandemic began to polarize certain communities, it became critically important to both of us that we create a resource that combines clear dialogue with scientific accuracy, and emphasizes the ways that community and togetherness can exist despite staying apart. Our book, When the World Stayed Home, was published in October of 2020, and covers a wide range of tough topics using calm, simple terms and lively illustrations. Young readers learn about viruses, pandemics, and how to prevent the spread of germs by wearing masks, practicing hand hygiene, and social distancing. It acknowledges that sad feelings are okay, and gently reminds children that these incredibly unique circumstances won’t last forever.
Perhaps most importantly, our book touches upon themes such as helping those in need, the value of resilience and creativity during times of hardship, and what it means to show appreciation to those who aid their community. My four-year-old, for example, is particularly grateful for our local ice cream shop for continuing to sell ice cream, and for delivery drivers who bring essentials to our house. It has been heartwarming to hear what children appreciate the most during times of uncertainty.
Our goal in publishing this book was to provide parents and caregivers with the opportunity to discuss these uncertainties as the world adjusts to life during a pandemic. One of our favorite features is a scrapbook section at the end, which provides a place for families to document their individual journeys during this unprecedented time. Perhaps years from now, children can look back on their scrapbooks and recall the sacrifices they made for the good of others, as well as some of the more enjoyable times they shared with their families. It might also provide a comforting reminder that children can find ways to persevere if they remain creative.
Publishing When the World Stayed Home was just the beginning for Kaylee and me. We created a website (speechandgo.com) to amplify our efforts and serve as a platform to publish and share free educational resources for kids and their caregivers. Some are specific to COVID-19, while others are simply fun activities to help stimulate children in a time where routines have gone out the window. We also created an Instagram (@worldstayedhome) where we spread hope and encouragement by sharing weekly stories from community members who have gone above and beyond.
Our hope is that When the World Stayed Home will serve as a reminder to our children for years to come that they are valued for their sacrifices and incredible resilience during this pandemic.
We also hope that they feel more connected with their community, and continue to show kindness and appreciation towards others. Children have a natural desire to be present and contribute, and we hope our book inspires them to continue lending a hand to those in need long after the pandemic is over. As the last page says to them:
“Thank you for staying home.
Thank you for being creative.
Thank you for keeping the world safe.
You are a superhero!”
Interested in seeing it for yourself? When the World Stayed Home is available for purchase through all major book sellers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart), as well as through our website, www.speechandgo.com. All books that are bought directly from our store can be signed with a personal note from both of us and mailed with printed activities from our website. A portion of each month’s proceeds from our website’s book sales is donated to local food banks and other community initiatives in the tri-state area.