A Detroit family adjusted to pandemic life. The ap...

A Detroit family adjusted to pandemic life. The approaching school year brought dread and stress rushing back

COVID-19 forced the Catos to create new routines and ways to support one another -- but that could all go out the window when the school year begins.

The Cato family is struggling to figure out how to best navigate the upcoming school year in Detroit.

Like many Detroiters, the Cato family spent spring and early summer figuring out how to manage the requirements of daily life during a pandemic. Though a period of emotional distress has evolved into relative tranquility with their routines, they are not excited about the disruption that the new school year will bring.

“We worked really, really hard [teaching on Zoom],” said Simone Cato, 40, who teaches 5th through 8th grades at Charlotte Mason Community School, a private institution near Woodward Avenue and Six Mile that her four children attend. “Kids don’t show up or check their email, and assignments don’t get done. I had to keep checking up on the kids and couldn’t help my own kids [do their work]. My kids were frustrated because I couldn’t help them.

“I don’t think I can do that for a whole school year,” she told Detour. “It just costs too much.”

The high cost for Simone means inevitably giving sloppy seconds to her first priority, her family. The Catos are now once again navigating dread and indecision about the best way to handle school, as science evolves about the risks of COVID-19 for children and districts scramble to create reopening plans that balance safety and education access.

Charlotte Mason’s plan is to open for in-person instruction with social distancing measures in place, principal Ann Pattie told Detour. She added that face-to-face instruction is the only option at this time. While Simone dreads the prospect of teaching at home on Zoom while her children attend school virtually, she is also not thrilled with the idea of sending her children back to school. She and her husband Steven, a housing compliance inspector for the City of Detroit, have not made a concrete decision about what to do for the upcoming school year.

Though it was tough adjusting to life within the confines of the coronavirus, Simone and Steven eventually found their rhythm. When Michigan’s stay-at-home order went into effect, they were intentional about navigating their emotions while supporting their children through theirs. Their goal was to remain sane and keep their family unit tight.

They made sure to have conversations about the effects of COVID-19 with their children, Makaio, 12, Josiah, 10, Emmanuel, 7, and Nadia, 4. During dinner they began praying, especially for the elderly, their grandparents and a family friend and others who have cancer.

“[Our kids] are very aware of the people who are most likely to get it,” Simone said in the spring. “We talk about it. I just didn’t realize when Josiah broke down yesterday that even though we have been praying for people, they have been doing [school] work as usual. He hasn’t been able to grieve during the day. Today was a little bit more relaxed, not as much school work. We are trying to balance that.”

Courtesy photo

Steven, also board president for the Charlotte Mason Community School, said a part of the plan for balance was for the children to process their feelings in the morning during a Zoom call with their teachers. This gave them a chance to connect with their peers while they were physically isolated from one another. Also, Steven began taking his lunch and break when the children took theirs so they could eat and play together.

This was different from the family’s normal schedule. On a typical day before March, the family of six would rise by 5:30 a.m., leave the house by 7:15 a.m. to make it to the first stop by 7:30. Steven would drop off Simone and the children to Charlotte Mason before heading to work downtown Detroit. Evenings were always full, with either martial arts or soccer and debate.

The Catos have found ways to deal with their disappointment and stress over their kids’ anxiety, Simone’s mom’s health and financial challenges and friends who had COVID-19. “I’ve been able to calm down and relax,” Simone said. “I cuddle with the kids and sleep in a little bit.” 

At the beginning of their quarantine, the two oldest boys started a Zoom call with friends to hang out and pray. That weekly call continues. They also went to virtual camp, learning about acting and drones over Zoom. The family began playing soccer with each other in what they called the Cato Cup.

Once social distancing opened up to outdoor activities of up to 10 people, they began weekly soccer games with a few friends. They also occasionally host a backyard bonfire where they make s’mores.

Simone, a native of Jamaica who has had dual citizenship since 2011 and has lived in the United States for 16 years, scrapped plans for a huge international celebration for her 40th birthday. Instead of the big bash, Steven threw her a socially distanced party in the yard and side lot of friends a few doors down from them in the North End. 

And though Simone is looking to return to normalcy, she hopes some changes she’s made remain.

“It’s been nice spending time with my husband,” she said. “And I’m hoping my prayer life remains and [that I don’t] go back to mediocrity and complacency after this is over. Hopefully relationships will keep getting better. I’m exercising and that feels great. My hope is that I will take more time to do that more often.”

While Steven has been concerned for his family members and friends, he gained another perspective.

“As Americans, we have a ‘go go’ outlook on life, but this has been beautiful for me to not have soccer, to not have martial arts. It gives me a chance to reset and to look at how I have been spending my time,” Steven said. “It has this quieting effect that I think is amazing. When you’re limited with your ability to connect with people [we can see] — we take so much of that for granted. This has given me another perspective on life. None of us is really safe. Anybody can go at any time.”

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Rhonda J. Smith, a lifelong Detroiter who resides in the Russell Woods-Sullivan area, where she has served on the neighborhood association board, written for its newsletter, organized activities in its parks and provided residents with tax foreclosure prevention information. With a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in communication, she has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in outlets including The Detroit News, Newsday, Chicago Tribune and Wayne County Community College District publications. She was a 2019 Detour Detroit Emerging Voices Fellow.