The first day of school during a pandemic

Typically around this time of year Facebook and Instagram are filled with photos of happy kids standing for their posed “first day of school” photos. A child will often hold a sign which says something like, “First day of first grade, 2020!” Children with their new clothes, new shoes, and new accessories smile big for their parents as they mark another milestone in their childhood.

But as we all know, this year is quite different. There are those photos, but not as many of them. And you oftentimes can’t see the big smiles because all those little faces are covered with masks. We are all adapting to school in the time of a pandemic. And we just can’t seem to shake just how odd it all still feels, even though we’ve been doing this for almost half of 2020. Part of the issue right not I think is that there is so much inconsistency. Some schools are completely online this year. Some schools are still 100% attendance each day. Some schools are a mix of both, or somewhere in between.

And everything feels so political it’s like if we post a photo of our kids wearing a mask, it is some sort of criticism of freedom. The world feels cynical and hostile right now. What are we doing? Have we forgotten what it looks like to be kind as we’ve holed up in our houses and lived our lives connecting through screens and social media?

Our school system has currently decided to still have kids attend full time 100% attendance, with the option for families to choose to do e-learning. My wife and I debated what is best for our family for weeks. Micah has special needs and has many services provided to him only at school. Those services are critical to his learning and development. The social aspect of course is a huge factor as well. The only kids that Micah and Ezra have been around that are their same age have been each other for the most part. Otherwise, they’ve had nothing but interactions with their big sisters here at home.

At the same time, looking at the news and the statistics and the data here in Nebraska and around the country, we were very concerned about the spread of the virus and the health of the teachers, the girls in our home, and of course their own health. With Micah’s syndrome, who is to know how the virus might impact his health.

So after much debate, Sarah and I decided that the wisest thing to do for our family would be to keep them home. Doing this comes with a bunch of challenges of its own. But we are trying to take things one day at a time and do things the best we can for their best interest and for the health of our community. We already had to quarantine and isolate for nearly a month due to the virus, and that is something we’d like to avoid having to do again.

For the students that are going the elearning route, they confusingly had to go to school today to pick up iPads, meet their teachers, and have the process of what this year will look like explained to them. It’s just for a few hours, but for Micah, this whole process was inconsistent and upsetting.

Micah, upset and confused about having to go to school.

In the past, the first day of school has been super exciting for Micah. New backpack, new supplies, new teacher, riding the bus, seeing his friends. It’s all one big day of fun and excitement. That was not the case this morning, his “first day” of second grade.

Micah carries a lot of anxiety around with him. He wants things to be consistent and make a lot of sense. I mean, that’s true for all of us, but it is especially true for him. And if something doesn’t make sense to him, well, we are going to hear about it. He is impressively stubborn. And one thing that Sarah and I have learned is that having any sort of power struggle with him isn’t going to make anything better. Redirection, rationales, and empathy don’t seem to be the keys that work for him. There seems to only be one thing, and it is humor, but on his terms. You have to find something, anything, that he deems to be funny to distract him. And once you do, it is like it cuts the circuit in his brain that was fixated on being upset. It’s a maze to get there. And the process of getting there can be extremely frustrating and upsetting. But once you find it, it’s like snipping the only wire that would prevent the ticking time bomb from going off. You just have to figure out what color the wire is, and then it’s like magic.

This morning was one of those mornings. He was very upset about having to go to school. And he was confused as to why we couldn’t go in the school with him. From his perspective, if he is doing elearning, then why should he have to go to school? He already has met his teacher, why should he have to meet her again? He said he thinks its stupid that he can go to school, but mom can’t go in with him.

“Mom should dress up in a disguise and pretend she’s a teacher and sneak in the school with me,” he said.

After about 45 minutes of him being very upset, worried, sad, and angry, I finally figured out something that he found funny and the bomb was disarmed. He then he acted as if he hadn’t had an issue with school at all this entire morning. I was even able to get him to smile a big smile with his missing teeth. He lost one last night that had been hanging on by a thread. It’s nice to have some milestones of normalcy.

With Micah’s emotional turnaround, I was so incredibly relieved. I had already envisioned a huge fit or argument at the front of the school, with him lying on the ground screaming, throwing his mask, calling everyone stupid. That sort of thing happens when I’m not able to disarm the bomb appropriately. When I can’t find the right wire to snip.

But no, today he accepted it just fine and turned his attitude around completely.

Ezra on the other hand, he was excited about school. He is always concerned about Micah when he acts this way. Ezra tries to be the counterbalance to the situation emotionally. He acts extra helpful and affectionate. He gave me a number of hugs and told me he loves me this morning as Micah cried about having to go to school. That’s his way of responding to the stress. I find it touching.

He excitedly put on some new shoes as Sarah put on Micah’s because he was so upset. He was ready to go enjoy his “first day” of first grade.

On the car ride to the school you could tell that they were lost in thought thinking about the day. Their little minds, with their limited experience of living in this world have to be constantly trying to process how a virus, something they don’t really understand, is impacting their lives. It’s a delicate thing, and we as parents have a lot of influence and responsibility in responding to their anxieties and concerns.

When we arrived at the school, administrators were there waiting to help guide the kids to the right classrooms. Everyone had masks on, and an assistant principal gave hand sanitizer to each kid as they walked through the font doors.

We are thankful that Micah and Ezra are able to receive iPads from their school and for Sarah and I to have the flexibility in our jobs to support them through what will be a very difficult task of educating them during this pandemic era. But that gratefulness is energizing, even with the anxieties and unknowns that come with it, and so we push ahead in this pandemic era, trying to do the best we can for us, and for our country.

Published by Andrew

a ragamuffin dad planting some sequoias

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