The coronavirus is the closest thing to a worldwide shared experience since World War II. There are very, very few areas of the world that aren’t being affected in some way by the virus and COVID-19. The Rockford Register Star is reaching out to Rock River Valley natives throughout the world to see how their lives are being altered.
Mary Webb Swanson is a graduate of Boylan Catholic High School in 2000 and then earned a degree from DePaul University. She was a visual arts teacher at Jefferson High School for 11 years until getting a position as an art teacher at the American School of Madrid in Spain, where she has lived since August 2018. She provided her answers on April 4.
How did you end up there and in that profession? My husband and I are both teachers. We had been wanting to teach overseas since 2011, but it wasn’t until 2018, two and a half years after the birth of our youngest child, that we secured our position.
In 2017 I flew to Madrid without my family for a weekend training session, and I fell in love with the country and its culture. I had traveled to other European countries, however, it was Spain that stole my heart. It was after this trip that my husband got in contact with the American School of Madrid and was offered a position as their Upper School Learning Support Specialist. I later was offered a position working part time in the middle school learning support department and the other half in the visual arts department.
How long have you lived there? We moved in August of 2018, so we are just finishing up our second year.
When did you first hear about the coronavirus? I remember my colleague and headmaster at lunch discussing briefly about a city in China (Wuhan) that had been locked down due to this mysterious virus. That was the first time that I had heard anything about COVID-19; that was early February.
Fast forward a couple of weeks later and my husband, two daughters, and I were just returning from a trip to Prague, Czech Republic; we were coming back from Semana Blanca — a four day, midwinter break in Spain which occurs over the final weekend in February. A few days before the holiday weekend a large soccer match took place between Valencia (Spain) and Milan (Italy). Thousands of Madrileños — people from the community of Madrid — and other Spanish residents went to Milan to attend the match that is now known as “Game Zero” in much of Europe. About a week later is when we started to get information in Spain about the virus' impact in Italy.
Due to the fact that I work for an American affiliated school, we were immediately notified by the American Embassy. Our headmaster worked diligently with the Embassy and Spanish Ministry of Health in order to have a plan in place for our school’s students, staff, and families.
Even after all of the news from Italy, we still didn’t realize the magnitude of the situation. Although Spain and Italy are both part of the EU, they aren’t landlocked with one another so we honestly didn’t think it was going to hit as hard as it has here. That is until we learned about how those in Valencia and other areas of Spain — that attended Game Zero — started to fall ill.
As a precaution, the Spanish Ministry was requesting that anyone who had visited Italy and/or attended the soccer match during Semana Blanca to quarantine themselves for 14 days. On March 13, we received word that the entire country of Spain was going on a government mandated lockdown and no one was allowed to leave their homes unless it was to get groceries or medications from pharmacies.
When did it begin affecting your life? The evening of March 9. Everyone in the city of Madrid received a push notification on our phones stating that the Spanish government was closing all schools and universities across the nation. About 30 minutes later our headmaster sent an email to families and staff stating that we had one day to prepare and then all schools would close officially on March 11.
The Tuesday after the notification was very sad and scary for many of us, particularly the children. For approximately a week before schools closed, the administration and technology staff at ASM had been preparing teachers to run classes through Google Classroom and Hangouts. We used that last day to prepare students for what was to come and to say our goodbyes to each other for what may be the rest of the school year.
What is life like for you now? Everyone handles this type of situation differently. Personally, each day I wake up and tell myself, “You can get through this.” My husband and children are handling this situation differently than I am, but I have to remind myself every morning that there will be an end and we can make it through this.
If I could use one word to sum up everything it would be “grief." We live in a country rich in culture, history, love and excitement. Spaniards, and in particular Madrileños, are some of the most caring and family-oriented people. It’s been said that children rule the country. Spaniards are active, enjoy the outdoors, and live each day to the fullest. Seeing the city now as a ghost town is simply heartbreaking.
After about a couple weeks you start to grieve your former life. As a parent, your heart begins to break when you think about missed playdates, birthday parties that had to be set aside, and everyday experiences for your children.
Our 9-year-old daughter understands what is going on and was a bit anxious at the beginning. There are nights when she can’t fall asleep because she’s worried. She was missing her friends, but she has been using Google Hangouts to video chat with them. They also meet twice a week with their teachers as the school has put a great effort towards maintaining as much normalcy as possible.
Although it’s taking a toll on our oldest, it’s our 4-year-old daughter who is really being impacted. She video chats with her teachers and friends at least twice a week, but it’s a pretty complex situation for her to understand. At first, she thought she was the only one “locked up” in the house and didn’t understand why. One day it got so bad that she hid under her bed and wouldn’t let us console her.
It took FaceTiming with my parents from their home in Rockford to calm her down. I believe she now understands why we can’t leave our homes and that everyone, even our family back in the States, are staying indoors to stay healthy. Even with all of the sadness, she still goes out to our terrace every night at 8 p.m. to join the rest of Spain as they clap in salute to the healthcare and sanitation workers.
What can you do? What are restricted from doing? Where can you go? We aren’t allowed to do much. The Spanish government voted to put the country into a state of alarm. This gave them the constitutional power to revoke civil liberties such as, for obvious reasons, the right to assemble. Fines for non-compliance range anywhere between $325 and $6,500. The state of alarm has to be renewed every two weeks. It sounds awful and oppressive, but this is a country where for the most part, the citizens try to do what’s best for the other people living here.
Our family is extremely fortunate because we moved into an atíco in November. This is a top level flat that has stairs leading to a full terrace on the roof. The terrace is about 1,000 square feet, so our girls can run around, play, and ride their bikes and scooters. We also have a 40-square-foot walk-out terrace off of our living room to get some fresh air.
The only exception we have to leave our home is to go to the grocery store, pick up medicine at the pharmacy, or walk our dog. Anyone breaking these rules or driving too far away from their homes can be fined. No walks, no bike rides, ZERO interaction with friends and family, and only one person allowed out of the home at a time.
My husband stupidly walks our dog with another friend, but they remain 10 meters apart the whole time for fear of contamination and getting fined. It is, for the most part, nearly complete isolation.
Right now, the restrictions in the States aren’t strong enough. When I hear friends from the States complaining that they’re in lockdown, all I can think is, “You have no idea yet.” I truly don’t think that the USA understands the magnitude of what can and will happen there.
How long is your government saying this is likely to last? An article was published by the Spanish news company, El Pais (The Country), that indicates the President is considering extending the state of alarm through April 26. That will be six weeks of quarantine but might allow parents with children to go on walks in about a week. However, that is still being determined.
What do you miss doing on a daily basis that you never thought you'd miss? Where do I start? I’m a runner, so of course I miss my daily runs. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss going to work. Being an extrovert, this has really been hard for me. I miss daily interactions with people, buying fresh bread from the local panadería, and seeing my girls run around with their friends in the garden of our urbanizacíon (condominium).
It may sound odd, but I also miss getting ready in the morning because I no longer choose what to wear. My daily quarantine attire is yoga pants and T-shirts. I think most of all I miss the sound. It’s quiet. It’s eerie. It’s abnormal. It's been a difficult experience these past few weeks.
Are there any positives? Have you been using your time to finish a project, learn something new, reconnect? Of course spending more quality time with family is a plus. We’ve been doing a lot of puzzles, coloring, dance parties, and basically anything else we can think of to pass the time. Our oldest turns 9 in a few days, so we bought her a Nintendo Switch and Mario Kart. That’s kept her and my husband busy for short bursts of time.
We have also been pretty busy with virtual learning, so that is tying up a lot of our time during the day.
I started doing Pilates and yoga since I can no longer run every day. This helps with my anxiety and keeps me active. My daughters and I started baking more and even recorded some of our baking sessions. They’ve been a hit on social media with friends and family, and my girls enjoy recording them.
We are very fortunate to have this time to spend together. Many do not. We have friends who have tested positive and some have been admitted to the ICU and quarantined away from all family and friends. So far we have been healthy and safe in our homes, and for that I am thankful.
Have you lost anyone close to COVID-19? This is a tough one. As I stated before we have a handful of friends, seven to be exact. However, so far no one we know in Spain has died from the virus, and I’m really hoping that it stays that way.
How do you think life might change when this is over? I know that it will be an extremely emotional day for us here in Spain when we are allowed to see one another again. I cannot wait to hug my friends, my neighbors, and my students. I miss everyone so much.
In regards to the rest of the world, I am HOPING that people will learn to care about others and forget about old grievances. The pervasive attitude here is that we’re in this together. We really are, and that attitude has to spread to the States.
I hope people will come to understand that everyone’s life is equally meaningful. I hope that people will appreciate the hard work of health care workers, teachers, public transportation employees, delivery drivers, and grocery store workers. They are the real heroes and deserve as much gratitude as we can give them.
Perhaps when this is all over we can learn to tip the waitress a little more, greet the stranger who passes us on the street, take that extra minute when we’re outside to breathe in the fresh air, and to always remember to lend a helping hand to those that need it.
Alex Gary is a freelance correspondent