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TECHNOLOGY IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS by Adrianna Donat

Residents depend on their digital connections more than ever



Maplewood resident Drew Harteveld downloaded a tool called ChromaCam and a bunch of old Star Wars matte paintings off the web. Now he holds his WebEx meetings from the hangar deck in front of the Millennium Falcon, or occasionally Jabba’s palace.

If you had to choose a day when our community made a uniform shift in response to the coronavirus crisis, Monday, March 16th would be it. Suddenly, school buildings were closed and students became engaged in “distance learning.” Of course, parents needed to be home to help teach their children and those deemed nonessential started working remotely. Collectively, we began our season of trying to live a somewhat normal life from the confines of home.

Since most of the world is doing the same drill, laptops, cellphones, webcams and other electronic accessories are in high demand. The technology we had in the house in mid-March is all most of us have to support us through this period. And that means we’ve had to improvise. A lot.

Staying up to date on ever-evolving information has made technology critical. For that, our smart home applications are here to help. Alexa, Google Home and Siri can tell you how to make a face mask and what time curfew is in New Jersey. But be sure to double-check the information you receive: A local Amazon Alexa recently stated that “grocery deliveries are available within the hour in South Orange with Amazon Fresh.” We all know THAT isn’t true.

In fact, securing grocery delivery slots has become one of the more challenging tasks. My husband, Chris Donat, has found it necessary to alternate lifting weights with refreshing his delivery-window screen. He told Matters Magazine, “[T]en reps. Recover. Refresh screen. Repeat.” When it works, he is a hero who not only gets his workout done but keeps his family fed for the next week.

The author's son, Cole, spends the spring semester of his freshman year of college taking his classes from home via Blackboard, an online virtual classroom.

For remote learning, a working Chromebook, laptop or tablet is essential. For the younger kids, this is likely to mean a dusted-off early generation iPad or an elder sibling’s 12-pound Chromebook. Older students may be viewing a full school day through a grainy, glitchy, 11-inch screen, if they are lucky enough to have one at all. Even so, most students aren’t complaining about device speed when dealing with schoolwork.

Internet speed is a different matter, however. A loose online coalition of teenagers from SOMA are lobbying parents for faster internet speeds. An anonymous member of this coalition adamantly insists this is for the benefit of his family and has nothing to do with the video game Overwatch. (His parents remain skeptical.) In the meantime, he uses creative means to keep his family from using data-intensive apps while he is playing. “I’m pretty sure the dog needs a walk – it’s your turn, right?” is a tricky way to get household bandwidth to himself.

Members of a household can get competitive about securing the internet speed needed to do their various tasks, including playing video games.

Charlotte Harteveld, a Columbia High School sophomore, recently hosted a movie night with her friends. She used Netflix so they could all start the movie at the same time, and Zoom to chat as they watched. “It’s nice to have a link to communicate with my friends,” she said. “But it’s not the same as actually being in the same room with them. Having to communicate [this way] adds extra pressure to make conversations work, and the silence is awkward.”

The adults working from home are just as innovative but more serious. John and Patricia Fulweiler of South Orange both work with children and have had to learn new technology to do their jobs. Says John, a speech and language pathologist who doesn’t consider himself technologically savvy, “All of a sudden in the space of a week I had to figure out Zoom, Google Meet, Google Forms, and Dropbox.” To get up to speed, he watched webinars but admits, “Once the webinars confused me thoroughly I just went on the platform and tried it.”

Patricia, a teacher at South Orange Country Day School, has had to rethink how to best keep her kindergarteners’ attention now that she’s teaching via Zoom. She says, “I make sure my projects are very visual and easy to replicate at home.” For instance, she recently demonstrated the power of friction using just a water bottle, rice and a pencil. She continues, “It’s important to stop and ask a lot of questions. I love seeing the gallery of faces thinking through their answers.”

Rob Hubsmith, known as Coach Hub, with his Yankees background on his Zoom calls, connects with his work team in a daily virtual meeting.

Maplewood resident Rob Hubsmith is an early Zoom adopter whose work team connects each day in a virtual meeting. He advises organization and patience. “Most calls include people with varying tech skills. Sometimes you’ll find people who can make either the audio or video portion of a call work, but not both. Sometimes there’s an echo. Sometimes participants will talk over each other because of the delay. The call organizer will need to be prepared to make tweaks,” he says.

It goes without saying that business fashion exists only from the waist up for video calls. And since they are possibly the only social events in one’s days, people are putting extra effort into the details. Maplewood resident and science fiction fan Drew Harteveld says, “I downloaded a tool called ChromaCam and a bunch of old Star Wars matte paintings off the web. So now I do my WebEx meetings from the hangar deck in front of the Millennium Falcon, or occasionally Jabba’s palace.”

Charades, anyone? Cited by Tech Republic as one of the best Zoom games to play during the pandemic, it shows that Zoom is not just for business.

Finding a quiet place in the house for working and conference calls can be challenging. The “Maplewood rooms” – the former porches repurposed as part of the larger house – are the perfect places for conference calls if another family member doesn’t get there first.

But sometimes having access to the Maplewood room isn’t good enough. “The mailman comes almost every day during our afternoon team huddle,” explains a South Orange professor. “The dog goes nuts barking right in the middle of our call. I’ve tried using Krisp [a noise canceling program], but even that doesn’t always work,” she says. “Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, recognize we are in a strange moment in history and let the dog bark through it.”

Small businesses in the area are adapting as best as they can, and technology is a now a central part of their evolving business platform. Shops such as Perch Home have shifted to online sales and local delivery only. The Able Baker has started offering its goods plus some groceries online for local delivery. And South Orange piano instructor Tricia Tunstall is successfully teaching lessons using FaceTime.

Keeping groups connected takes some creativity. Members of the Maplewood Little Club have hosted virtual Trivia Nights, and Boy Scout Troop 5 has brought its 60-member-strong weekly meetings online each week. This keeps the Scouts engaged and moving forward with their skills.

Finally, residents are communicating virtually to keep in touch with family members. Bimal Peiris of Maplewood uses WhatsApp in the morning and evening to see how his 90-year-old father in Sri Lanka is being affected by his government’s response to the pandemic. Peiris says, “I’ve always been good about checking in with my father, but do it more than ever because now they have lock downs and online food shopping has been more challenging.”

By the time we can all go out again, many of us will find ourselves continuing to use the new technology we acquired when we started social distancing. Until then, stay innovative and healthy, SOMA.

Adrianna Donat is a writer who lives and now stays in her Maplewood home.