‘We’re starting to be able to feel safe being together’: La Crosse teacher Julie Welch reflects on freedoms brought by vaccination

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Outbreak Wisconsin is collaborative series, produced in partnership with Wisconsin Public Radio, that chronicles a variety of Wisconsin residents as they navigate life during the coronavirus pandemic.

Listen to Julie Welch’s third audio diary, produced by Hope Kirwan for WPR.

The coronavirus pandemic turned Julie Welch’s work life upside down, forcing her to teach her 6th grade class online for the first time in her 30-year career.

But losing time with her loved ones was among the  biggest hurdles she faced over the past year.

“Not being able to touch and hug and be with my daughters, and my mother-in-law and father-in-law — and just the people that you just kind of take for granted sometimes, that you can hug and kiss when you see them,” Welch said. “That was a big challenge for me to miss out on those times, just like it is for most people.”

Julie Welch’s father-in-law, Russ, is seen along with her husband, Brett, and daughters, Ellie and Anna, during a park get-together in June 2020. Russ died on March 16, 2021. Credit: Courtesy of Julie Welch

Welch said her family was limited to just a few outdoor get-togethers last summer. But she was especially grateful for those moments when her father-in-law unexpectedly died from a stroke in March.

“Trying to say those final goodbyes during COVID was really, really tough,” Welch said. “We were able to still see a few extended family members who had already been vaccinated but we haven’t yet been able to have his memorial service. So that was really a great loss this year for us.”

But the vaccinations of Welch’s immediate family members have offered her fresh freedoms, she said. 

“It’s like we’re starting to be able to feel safe being together and it’s just this incredible wonderful feeling,” Welch said. “I’m really looking forward to actually being with my children, maybe being able to safely get on an airplane and fly out to visit my one daughter who lives in New York City and actually enjoy time physically with her rather than just on Zoom.”

Those joys are returning as Welch reflects on one positive from the pandemic: She has struck a new work-life balance while teaching  from home through the La Crosse School District’s Coulee Region Virtual Academy.

In past years, Welch ended each long day in her classroom feeling like she ran out of time — failing to reach each student who needed her. She is now making those connections online during school hours with time to spare for herself.

“I’ve spent so much more time this year being reflective, being alone, being quiet and it’s been good,” Welch said. “I have missed friends and I have missed a lot of that socialization. But I’ve also realized how important the quiet is, and I’m hoping that this is a permanent change in my life.”

The Welch’s owned their rescue dog, Mabel, from March 24, 2020 until she died on Dec. 30th, 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Julie Welch
The Welch’s adopted Zara in April after fostering her, and deciding they couldn’t let her go. Credit: Courtesy of Julie Welch

Welch and her husband have spent some of that extra time with new canine companions. First, they met Mabel, a  Cane Corso mastiff mix. The couple adopted her in March 2020 just as COVID-19 began upending society. Welch walked her daily, and Mabel watched the couple as they gardened. 

“She was just a constant presence in my life,” Welch said. 

But their time was short. 

“Sadly, she died in December. We know she was an older dog and she had a pretty rough life before she came to us so she didn’t live through the year,” Welch said. 

Losing Mabel left a void in the home, Welch said. She initially tried to fill it by occasionally caring for friends’ dogs over several weeks. This spring, however, the couple started fostering another dog: Zara.

“She immediately adopted my husband as her person, and it was right after my husband had lost his dad,” Welch said. “She crawled right up in his lap and would hug him and just gave him that outlet of comfort.”

The couple quickly decided they couldn’t let go of Zara. They adopted her in April. 

‘We’re starting to be able to feel safe being together’: La Crosse teacher Julie Welch reflects on freedoms brought by vaccination is a post from WisconsinWatch.org, a non-profit investigative news site covering Wisconsin since 2009. Please consider making a contribution to support our journalism.

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