So, in a move impossible for his classmates — impossible for most schoolchildren in United States right now — Danny turned and tapped the wrist of Zola West, who was sitting beside him at the kitchen table.
“Danny,” Zola said, “you want to?”
Danny blushed and raised his hands to his cheeks, but then he nodded, and the two second-graders bent toward the screen. “Good morning, second grade,” they read, balancing on their elbows. “Today is Wednesday . . .”
Zola is Danny’s next-door neighbor in Fairfax County. He likes that she has a lot of energy, and he likes the way she builds with Legos, and he really likes that he still gets to see her and play with her every day, even though he can’t see anyone else.
That’s because his parents, Zola’s parents and a third set of neighbors are splitting home schooling, child care and other duties for the duration of the pandemic. When the coronavirus stalled society, the three families decided to keep their adjacent homes open to one another while remaining socially distant from all other neighbors, friends and acquaintances.
Danny’s mother, Maria, is a reading specialist in Alexandria Public Schools, so she handles school for the little kids: Danny; Zola, who’s 7; and Danny’s younger sister Sammy, who’s 6. Zola’s father, Corey West, is a statistician, so he teaches the big kids: his 10-year-old son, Nigel, and an 11-year-old from the third family, Jacob Kramer. The other parents pick up the slack during playtime, or when Maria has to hop on Zoom calls with her own students.
And, all hours of the day, the five children tumble back and forth between the three adjacent homes: to one house for trampoline bouncing, to another for basement fort-building and to the third for marathon Lego sessions.
“We see each other every day,” Zola said, “and we share germs.”
“But it’s okay,” Sammy interrupted, “because we’re like sisters.”
Michael Bader, an American University associate professor who studies cities and neighborhoods, said he’s heard of grandparents moving into their children’s homes to survive the pandemic, or caregivers choosing to live with clients to minimize risk. But this is the first case he’s aware of where “neighbors are getting together,” he said, “and I find it so heartening.”
Bader said he expects to see more mini-experiments in pooling resources going forward, although he noted that socioeconomic status may determine whether families can participate.
“This is a period of social innovation,” Bader said. “I don’t want to make grand proclamations, but these small gestures now could really affect what people think is possible in a future past covid.”
He added: “We might come out of this crisis much more connected.”
The three homes form a compact “L” at the heart of a leafy, suburban neighborhood: the Magallaneses directly next to the Wests, who are directly across from the Kramers. Tara West, 42, calls the Kramers her “backyard neighbors,” as their lawns are separated only by a wooden fence.
Despite their proximity, the three families never expected to grow so close. None of the adults were especially friendly with neighbors during their own childhoods, they said.
But not long after they all moved in the mid-2010s, the oldest boys, Jacob and Nigel, struck up a friendship over basketball. Or maybe baseball; no one can remember. That turned into once-a-week dinners with their families, then twice a week, then three times — and in the meantime, Zola and Sammy had begun to bond.
Pretty soon, Mark Kramer, a 46-year-old engineer with a reputation as the “handy” husband, pulled out his tool kit and installed a little door in the wooden fence.
He “read the wind early on,” said Tara West. “We go back and forth all the time via the little door.”
The children, then the adults, became inseparable. Maria Magallanes, a 43-year-old literacy coach, said getting to know the Wests and Kramers dispelled her feelings of loneliness in Fairfax County, where she has no immediate relatives.
She used to worry her children would grow up without a strong sense of community, deprived of rituals such as the birthday parties she used to share with scores of cousins.
“Now Jacob and Nigel and Zola have become my kids’ cousins,” she said, “here, always, for their parties.”
At no point did the families sit down and formally decide to keep sharing their homes, the parents said. It just kind of happened.
It would have been far more difficult to bar the children from seeing one another, Tara West said. The adults did discuss safety and health precautions: a conversation especially important for Tara West and Monica Kramer, whose jobs — as a social worker and physical therapist, respectively — require leaving the home. Although Kramer’s work has gone remote, West must still head outside. She takes every possible sanitizing precaution, she said.
All three families also follow basic guidelines, such as frequent hand-washing and mask-wearing in public. On a recent “nature walk” around the neighborhood, on which Maria Magallanes leads Danny, Sammy and Zola every morning, all four crossed the street when they passed a couple walking two golden retrievers.
“Guys, get on this side, get on this side,” Magallanes said, before reminding the trio of the first thing they had to do after getting home: “Everyone is going to wash your hands.”
“It’s not like I’m going to lick my shoes,” Zola muttered, but she complied.
The families know there are risks. Monica Kramer sometimes jokes that, if one of the group gets sick, “we’re all going down together.”
Still, they all agree the benefits far outweigh the concerns — a feeling echoed by University of Colorado professor Gary Melton, who studies families and community support. Melton said he worries about the possible negative consequences of stay-at-home orders: He fears people are opting for total isolation, when they could safely confine their social circle to a handful of trustworthy neighbors.
He said research shows that living alone makes people less happy and less able to care for themselves or their children. He pointed to studies that concluded loneliness can affect life expectancy the same way as smoking half a pack of cigarettes every day for decades.
“I’ve been on a personal crusade telling friends to keep a relationship or two or three as a support system,” Melton said. “We would probably be better off, not only in physical health but in mental health, if we did that.”
Still, the parents in Northern Virginia know not everyone would take Melton’s positive view: They are careful not to mention their living arrangements in conversations with co-workers or casual acquaintances, fearful it may provoke ire.
It might be more likely to spur jealousy.
“I’ve actually had another friend group say they’re all very envious of our situation,” Tara West said.
Although the children’s classmates have mostly accepted the setup without question, a few friends have asked Nigel why he’s still allowed to see Jacob. The answer is easy.
“I just tell them,” Nigel said, “that we’re basically brothers.”
A Zooming duo
Danny has a hard time choosing, post-virus: Is his favorite thing to do with Zola still playing Legos? Or is it reading, or math?
School is almost more fun, now that it takes place at home, Danny said. He misses his other classmates, but sitting beside Zola during Zoom classes lessens the weirdness, helps heal the hurt. Plus, home schooling means he can stretch out on his belly, flush against his mom’s comfy rug, to tackle writing assignments.
“I am very bad at wacking up,” Danny wrote on a recent morning, outlining his daily routine in an “All About Me” book. Next to “10:00 - 11:00 Zoom,” he carefully penciled in, “(Zola Danny).”
The adults believe the children are getting the best education possible, they said, given the constraints of remote learning. It helps that Maria is a teacher: “That was lucky,” Monica Kramer said.
It’s keeping the grown-ups sane, too. If one parent is midway through a work Zoom call and the kids get too rowdy, all they have to do is open the door and usher the children to the next house. Being able to seek support and pandemic parenting advice — or just complain to another adult who is not a spouse — is also priceless.
“I like to think I could have managed emotionally without these guys,” Tara West said, “but I don’t think so.”
The families plan to continue sharing their homes through the summer, the parents said, because they do not feel comfortable sending their children away to camp. And they suspect the arrangement may last into the next academic year.
“If we have to do this in the fall because schools don’t open,” Maria Magallanes said, “we’ll be ready.”
The food-sharing has been a particular boon, the adults said. Not only does it minimize trips to the grocery store, it has also forced the five children, all notoriously picky eaters, to be more adventurous.
The Magallanes kids were hesitant about Meatless Mondays — until they tried Monica Kramer’s guacamole. Tara West’s chicken tortilla soup, which requires two hours of pureeing and sauteing, proved a surprise, runaway hit.
“Sammy ate four peas at my house,” West said, “and it was such a celebration.”
Expanding taste buds aren’t the only change. Zola’s socks — which she slips off every chance she gets — now fill all three households, cropping up beneath cushions, behind sofas, inside pockets. Deprived of boys his age, Danny has started participating in Sammy and Zola’s games: The other day, Maria Magallanes overheard him request his own Barbie.
Of course, he did later try (unsuccessfully) to interest the girls in destroying the doll, but “it’s interesting how he’s adapted,” Magallanes said.
One particular game is easy to join. For the past few days, the three youngest children have worked away at building “The Bright House,” a sprawling Lego construction splayed across most of a West family rug.
Named in memory of an especially bright and sunny day, the house is dominated by three large, adjacent bedrooms: Danny’s, next to it Zola’s, and next to hers, Sammy’s.
“They had to be close,” Zola said, “because what if we got lonely?”