“Rise and shine! It's P.E. time!” I glanced out at the dark, menacing clouds rolling in. It wasn't even 7 a.m., the customary start to our rush to school. However, we weren't living in usual times. It was May 2020, in the grips of a full-on pandemic lockdown, just outside our nation's capital in Arlington, Va. While hiding under my covers earlier that morning, my phone forecasted rain for the entire day. Without an outlet for my three daughters' (ages 8, 5, and 1) endless energy, we would all suffer, including the furniture that now doubled as gymnastics equipment, as well as my tattered sanity. By declaring “P.E.” I get to be a drill instructor and make them run laps outside, before the deluge of rain.
B.C. (Before Coronavirus), we limited our screen time, but now that ideal degenerated into the more pragmatic routine of the girls watching hours of TV even before my feet hit the floor in the morning. I felt ragged, desperately clinging to sleep, not quite ready to face the world. Like kids everywhere, the girls' school transitioned to online learning in March 2020, and my daughters adapted well to school through the once-unknown-but-now-ubiquitous Zoom.
Even B.C., my husband and I both could work from home. Similar to the title to Shakira's song, Whenever, Wherever, my workplace, the nonprofit RAND Corporation, allows me to choose when and where I work. However, trying to work with these new-found tiny “coworkers” tested our mettle. Indeed, our children had overtaken our home, roaming like feral cats, with the ability to unlock doors like ninjas. No virtual meeting or conference call was too hallowed to deter a cameo of a shrieking child or a sisterly squabble mimicking a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Born and raised in Lincoln, my roots run deep at the university. My father, Tony Schkade who died in 2012, worked at UNL for over three decades, and I grew up running around City Campus. While many high school classmates were determined to leave home for college, I happily enrolled at UNL, eager to be a part of the Honors Program and the Cornhusker Marching Band. I treasured my time as an undergrad, and following graduation, I didn't seek to move away from Nebraska; it's just where life has taken me. With stops in Kansas City, Ann Arbor, Atlanta, and now Washington, D.C., my distance from home keeps growing. Featured in a 2001 Omaha World-Herald cover page article with the headline Brain Drain printed above my picture, I was the epitome of Nebraska graduates who leave the state in search of careers and education elsewhere.
I have enjoyed my time away from home. I loved my graduate student experience at the University of Michigan—though it was far easier to vocalize my love for Ann Arbor prior to Nebraska joining the Big Ten. Working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon provided tremendous job satisfaction as I wrestled with complex issues. Now, at RAND, a global think tank and research institution, I get to study tough problems in greater depth. Even if I was seeking to return to Nebraska, where would I work? At first blush, it seemed like an untenable change—until a pandemic rocked our world and made it feasible—even appealing—to temporarily relocate back home.
Before coronavirus, our East Coast home afforded us enviable urban amenities in a desirable location just over the river from Washington, D.C.: captivating and diverse people and job opportunities; an endless selection of ethnic restaurants and commercial establishments; unmatched cultural and educational experiences; and a Costco—all accessible by walking or public transportation. However, with COVID-19, all these advantages of our urban lifestyle vanished. Like the Apostle Paul, I now “count everything as loss.” Suddenly, with these public spaces shuttered, it felt as if the walls of our cozy home were closing in on us.
Serendipitously, while braving a road trip to visit my mom in Lincoln in July 2020, we heard the cascade of school closure announcements for the coming fall in Virginia. My husband and I had already briefly imagined the “what if” of school not opening: “How about Nebraska for the school year?”
For us, it was vital for our girls to be in the classroom as much as possible. Conversely, in the event of another full lockdown, my mom could help us, and we could provide some “entertainment” for her. It seemed like a no-brainer. We quickly toured some local schools. Like so much of COVID-19 life, what once seemed to be inconceivable quickly shaped up to be a reality.
Once decided, we beelined back to Virginia, packed up whatever we could fit into our minivan and returned to Lincoln. Our temporary move to Nebraska has been the best—and easiest—decision we have made for our family.
My husband continues to work remotely on UPS's Pfizer team, managing the delivery of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine around the world. In Lincoln we have more space, support and openness, and our daughters can physically participate in activities.
Our girls have remained in the classroom full-time throughout the 2020–21 school year, without a single case of COVID-19 spread at school. We've been hanging out at The Mill on Innovation Campus, eating Runzas and indulging in Goodrich ice cream.
Regardless of what the future holds for our family, we have much in which to be thankful. We are grateful for our school, for our jobs, for our extra family time, and especially for my mom who graciously opened her heart and her home to us. And come to think of it, I think my dad would have liked this last year, too.
Lisa Davis is an adjunct operations researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Nebraska Quarterly on July 14, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.