Back to School in the Age of COVID-19

Story and photo by Marlene Wandel

It’s almost September, and I am trying not to think about it. It’s been such a nice summer, and so far, it hasn’t been sullied with back-to-school flyers. Their arrival always causes a bit of panic, as my kids are forced to realize that summer actually will end. Like many parents, I’m usually a tiny bit gleeful when the first day of school comes around. I don’t look forward to the endless repetition of reminding them to wash their lunch containers, or the school-related social stressors, but we’ve mostly had a decent, and sometimes wonderful experience with sending our kids to school.

Enter the coronavirus, and this extended state of suspended education animation, and now I have no idea what to think. My usual silver lining, glass-half-full type of optimism is on standby. I am awash with what if’s, with an unhealthy dose of denial on the side. What if my 11-year-old’s glasses fog up all day because the masks (that I have not yet made) are terrible? What if one of my kids’ school closes, but their teacher dad’s does not, and we have no back-up plan because we are both going to work? (We don’t). What if the list of restrictions and rules that my younger son’s school has released is actually impossible for wiggly kids? What if students and teachers alike can’t find time to do anything between the 15 points of handwashing throughout the day? What if the kids finally realize that their parents have no clue about what is going to happen? What if my kids get COVID-19 is actually not on my list of imminent concerns; it’s not even in the top five. I recognize that the poorly censored sentiments of the fearless buffoon to the south are incorrect, and that kids are not actually immune to this coronavirus, but I also know that they aren’t immune to sadness, loneliness, or fear, which feel like more immediate threats.

I want to look forward to this, and see it as an overall positive despite the murkiness of the back-to-school plan. We are all sharing the perspective of my older son this year; as he stands on the deep gaping maw of the unknown, staring down his first day of high school with some trepidation, I can’t help but share that anxiety.

But what if the best thing we can do in the face of this great unknown is to learn how to manage our fear, and to get comfortable with our inability to control this? What if this is the greatest empathy exercise we have ever been handed? What if, besides all the tangled webs of fear this pandemic has provoked, this is an opportunity to consider starting to understand what it is to feel powerless. Many of us, safe in our privilege and single-family homes with multiple vehicles in the driveway, have had choices, and the freedom to advocate for ourselves. We’ve chosen the schools we think best fit our kids’ needs.  We’ve taken for granted the freedom to walk away from options we don’t like.

It’s uncomfortable to be faced with this thing that lurks in every corner of human existence, out of which we cannot argue nor buy our way. It’s unsettling not to know what school will look like, and that no matter where we turn, what school or board we choose, the same masked unknown is waiting. It’s startling to know that for many, not having choices has been the norm for a long time. And maybe, if nothing else, gaining that perspective is the silver lining.