FARGO — When Tina Ashton heard Minnesota closed K-12 schools due to the coronavirus pandemic on Sunday, March 15, she wondered what Fargo would do. Hours later, she found out when North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum ordered the state's schools to temporarily shut down.

Luckily, she and her family, including her husband Eric and their daughters, Karma, 13, and Sky, 11, were already preparing. They didn’t panic shop for toilet paper or bottled water, but they had upped shopping trips to twice a week for essentials.

The Ashton family can breathe easier than some area families as Eric, a Microsoft employee, can work from home. Tina, a professional photographer and owner of Expressions by Ashton, can use her discretion to choose clients or projects during the weeks of social distancing to come.

“It was surprising,” Tina said of the school closure. “And it’s kind of scary. Financially, I need to stay open, but it’s a tough choice and I don’t want to possibly infect anyone or bring it home either.”

“I was shocked,” Sky said of learning school was cancelled. “Because all my teachers, they’re all trying to convince us it’s small and not a big thing.”

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The Ashton family was hopeful, even joyous together, despite the invisible threat of COVID-19, the coronavirus that's killed more than 7,000 people across the world. As of Monday evening, North Dakota had one confirmed case, and Minnesota had 54 cases, but no deaths, according to health agencies.

Eric and Tina became serious when they explained to their children what social distancing means. Social distancing measures are taken to restrict when and where people can gather to stop or slow the spread of infectious diseases.

“We have to isolate ourselves so that we don’t get sick, and so that we don’t make others sick,” Tina said.

Eric tells his daughters the truth about the pandemic, but isn’t worried that conditions in Fargo will get much worse.

"I don’t think we need to be that worried,” he said. “We’re unique here. If we were in a big city, it would be different."

Sky Ashton and her Siberian cat Scarlet at home in Fargo during the first day of cancelled classes Monday, March 16, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Chris Hagen / The Forum
Sky Ashton and her Siberian cat Scarlet at home in Fargo during the first day of cancelled classes Monday, March 16, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Chris Hagen / The Forum

On the first day with no school, both Karma and Sky said they already miss classes. Neither of the girls miss school lunches, Sky said. She busied herself making a Caesar salad while her mother boiled pasta for lunch.

“I will miss my friends, but I don’t miss learning,” Sky said.

Both girls are ready to study at home, if needed, but Sky is worried how she can stay focused with distractions such as television and games.

Along with distractions, there will be baking mornings with the kids, painting days with Sky, and writing days for Karma, who enjoys realistic fiction.

For now, the Ashtons will take work, home and isolation “one day at a time,” Tina said.

In West Fargo, Don Pate, a cook who lost his job to pneumonia last year, and his wife Jessica are trying to take care of their five children ages 3 to 14.

On the first day of cancelled classes, Pate, 33, is already worried. His wife is involved in a senior meal program that is being rolled back because of the pandemic, he said. Pate is a full-time father, working night jobs, but during the day he's ferrying his five boys from school to home and back again. Two of his children can look after themselves, but the rest can't, Pate said.

“Today is the first day they didn’t have school, so it’s still good," Pate said. "But with all the programs shut down and everyone being afraid to go outside, over panicking, my kids are bored, driving themselves nuts with nothing to do.”

His family won't be able to pay bills if the social distancing continues for weeks, or even months, he said. A prolonged shutdown of schools and jobs will be devastating financially, he said.

"We live paycheck to paycheck. Two weeks is going to be detrimental to us," Pate said. "A month? We’re talking evictions. This can be very detrimental especially to a large family like ours. In times like this, we’re terrified."

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