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Working from home during COVID-19 pandemic, Carroll County residents find ‘new routines’

Real estate agent Bret Merson of Westminster is working from home, alongside with his wife Emily and 21-month-old son Logan, pictured.
Real estate agent Bret Merson of Westminster is working from home, alongside with his wife Emily and 21-month-old son Logan, pictured. (Courtesy photo / HANDOUT)

After Gov. Larry Hogan ordered nonessential businesses closed and issued a stay-at-home order in March, workers across the state and county scrambled to learn new ways to work from home and create a new normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

There have been challenges along the way, but also unexpected rewards for some Carroll countians.

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Two classrooms, at home

Eldersburg resident Sue Emerick is a math teacher at South Carroll High School. When schools closed, she began providing instruction at a distance for her students.

Eldersburg resident Sue Emerick, a math teacher at South Carroll High School, has been instructing her students at at a distance. Her husband Ken, a high school science teacher in another county, has been teaching from home as well — in a different room.
Eldersburg resident Sue Emerick, a math teacher at South Carroll High School, has been instructing her students at at a distance. Her husband Ken, a high school science teacher in another county, has been teaching from home as well — in a different room. (Courtesy photo / HANDOUT)

“I commute to my office in the next room each morning by 7:30 a.m.,” Emerick said. “I check to see that the day’s math work for my students is set and ready to be sent out electronically on Google Classroom by 8 a.m. This includes instructional videos that I create for each lesson, practice problems and checkups for understanding. Some days I have a morning virtual meeting with my department, school or secondary math teachers from the county.”

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Emerick attends live digital learning webinars offered by Carroll County Public Schools, reads and sends student emails, grades assignments, and plans her unit and lessons for the upcoming few days. She records instructional videos and prepares practice problems with answer keys.

“I often meet with students through virtual Google Meet conferencing to go over math-related questions or to check in to see how the students are doing during this time of quarantine. It is a full and busy day from start to finish,” she said.

Emerick’s husband, Ken — a high school science teacher in another county — also teaches from home.

“We find it works best to work in separate rooms in the house since we are often meeting with students on virtual conferences, meeting with faculty for virtual meetings or recording our video lessons,” she said. “It takes flexibility to coordinate our schedules and make things work well each day.”

Emerick doesn’t like sitting at a computer all day. She misses engaging her students and offering encouragement, but she said she’s grateful her husband can relate to her day.

“I miss the interaction, connection and relationship with my students,” she said.

But she has also found rewards, she noted.

“I have more time with my husband. We eat breakfast and lunch together each day, and take long walks at the end of the day. We have been working on a project together that we have been dreaming about for a long time … updating our kitchen!”

Sykesville resident, Robert Hugg, an information technology systems engineer for University of Maryland, College Park, has been working longer hours from home but without a commute.
Sykesville resident, Robert Hugg, an information technology systems engineer for University of Maryland, College Park, has been working longer hours from home but without a commute. (Courtesy photo / HANDOUT)

Full house, all day long

Working from home has also brought rewards to Sykesville resident, Robert Hugg. An information technology systems engineer, he works for University of Maryland, College Park.

“Before, I would wake up early, gather myself, sneak around the house trying not to disturb anyone’s sleep and head into work to beat the morning rush hour,” Hugg said. “Today, everybody wakes up about the same time. As I ready myself to start my day working from home, my wife is situating the kids [ages 5 and 3] to start their own day. Once I’m in my office, the door closes and I log into my many programs to communicate with co-workers.”

Hugg said they use instant messaging through WebEx Teams and email, and larger meetings are now done through Zoom video conferencing.

“My typical day results in three to four meetings, which I spend about three hours in. Our director is big on using webcams, so it is encouraged for everyone to enable their webcam,” he said. “A lot is communicated through facial expressions that would otherwise be missed without the camera.”

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Hugg said his kids love it when he heads downstairs for lunch.

“By the time I hit the bottom step, my children are eagerly waiting to greet me. During lunch break, I am asked at least 10 times if I’m all done work.”

Hugg said his biggest challenge is knowing when to stop.

“As an IT professional at a higher-ed institution, my work priorities have drastically changed to implementing and supporting online learning services for students. The urgency of this work and the impact of all IT staff working from home has led to me working longer hours,” he said.

But the bonus for Hugg, he said, is seeing his family more.

“I am more in touch with how their day is going than if I was stuck in the office building in College Park. Occasionally, I hear their laughter or the typical sibling rivalry, but none of it is distracting. My wife is a stay-at-home mother who takes amazing care of our children during the day. She has adjusted well to making sure the kids are respectful and quiet while I work from home.”

Pros and cons

Keymar resident Pam Van der Meulen is a branch chief in systems at Social Security Headquarters in Woodlawn. These days, she’s working from home, too.

Keymar resident Pam Van der Meulen, a branch chief in systems at Social Security Headquarters in Woodlawn, said she misses stopping by the desks of her staff to check in but has compensated by holding weekly staff meetings and short individual meetings.
Keymar resident Pam Van der Meulen, a branch chief in systems at Social Security Headquarters in Woodlawn, said she misses stopping by the desks of her staff to check in but has compensated by holding weekly staff meetings and short individual meetings. (Courtesy photo / HANDOUT)

“I have been doing 100% telework since March 17 due to the coronavirus,” Van der Meulen said. “Before that, we were able to telework two days per week, which was reduced to one day per week on March 2.”

Van der Meulen spends her days reading and responding to emails, checking the status of staff projects, and attending meetings via conference calls.

“I love working from home,” she said. “I would prefer for it not to be 100% because I miss seeing everyone, but it was an easy transition since we were already set up for telework. We don’t have to be concerned about whether the person sitting beside us is sick. Many of my staff feel that they are more productive at home because there are fewer distractions.”

Van der Meulen said she misses stopping by the desks of her staff to check in. She compensates by holding weekly staff meetings and short individual meetings, a practice she hopes to continue when they are finally back in the office.

‘New routines’

Before the pandemic of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, real estate agent Bret Merson of Westminster worked from home two days a week for Keller Williams. Now he’s home with his wife Emily and 21-month-old son Logan daily, juggling work time with family.

Merson’s day begins with daily devotions, followed by a Zoom meeting before breakfast, then work calls, emails and administrative tasks. He moved his work desk to the kitchen, an easier place to work when Logan is sleeping.

“Although it’s required more discipline, it’s been easier to develop new routines,” Merson said. “It’s easy to sleep in when you don’t have a physical place to go. The best thing is having more time at home with Emily and Logan, having consistent workout times each day, and lunch with my wife most days. It’s certainly made me think twice about all the meetings I’d go to before and made me evaluate the return on time spent for such, as well as commuting 45 minutes to my office.”

Van der Meulen agrees that losing the commute has been a change for the better.

“I drive one hour each way to work. Now I have that time to do something else each day. I don't have to worry about traffic or the weather and I save on the gas expense. I also have uninterrupted time to do my work, which is very nice. Another advantage is not having to worry about what clothes to wear. Anything comfortable is fine!”

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Along with Merson and Van der Meulen, Mugg and Emerick have found bright sides to their current situations as well.

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“Being home with my family is fantastic,” Hugg said. “I feel more in touch with my children. No longer needing to commute to the office is a great benefit. After a long day of work, I would come home and crash on the couch. Now, I have more energy to interact with my wife and kids. I’m also saving a bit of money by not having to spend on gas or wear and tear on my car. Working from home has really given me a greater appreciation for the social interactions I have with my co-workers in the office, too.”

Emerick said she’s made some realizations about her faith.

“It has given me the opportunity to trust God and let go of what I can’t control,” she said. “It has helped me slow down and be still when I normally would not. This quarantine has also made me more aware of how blessed we are in this country to have so many freedoms and opportunities that I often take for granted. I am finding ways to be positive, hopeful and encouraging even if I don’t enjoy this new way of life.”

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