When I was young, I was always super excited when it was time to go back to school. I loved school and I loved everything about it. I assumed when I had children of my own, they would feel the same way. Not so much.
I am the really lucky and proud mom of two grown men who, when they were boys, had no interest in going to school. From the very beginning, neither of them had any interest in spending the day in a classroom. They wanted to be outside, discovering, exploring, sweating, and getting dirty.
Every year when it was time to go shopping for school supplies, I was reminded anew that I cared much more about, not only the supplies, but starting school than they did. Both of my guys loved the freedom of summer vacation. They enjoyed filling their days with hot, sweaty bike rides with friends, snake hunting, roller hockey, trips to the zoo, and rainy-day Disney movie marathons. And, of course, they preferred the summer schedule that included staying up late and sleeping in every morning.
The weeks leading up to the start of school always included trying to pack as much end of the summer fun into our days as we could possibly manage. We went to the ice cream stand almost daily. We caught lightening bugs and played flashlight tag late at night. We had pajama days and one sleepover after another.
It was always hard to admit summer was coming to a close. I would say things like, “School will be great. You will get to see your friends.” They weren’t buying it. They would respond, “I get to see my friends all summer, only we get to do what we want to do instead of what we have to do.”
Each year, I would try to ease us into the back to school routine gradually. We would start with coming inside at dark, taking showers, and going to bed a little earlier. In the mornings, I would make noise in the kitchen so, little by little, they would begin to out of bed closer to the time they would need to be up for school.
Our routine usually worked pretty well, and by the time school started, they were a little less surly about the whole affair.
I’ve been thinking back on those days a lot as I visit with parents and students and teachers about what back to school will be like this year. COVID-19 has really changed everything. Many children are anxious about the start of school even under the best circumstances. This year, as families are faced with decisions about whether students will return to school buildings or participate in virtual learning, anxiety is high all around. Parents worry that if their children return to the buildings, they will get sick, contribute to the spread of the virus, find wearing a mask anxiety-producing, or feel afraid. And they worry if their children stay home, they will fall behind, their mental health will suffer from being isolated, and parents wonder if they can provide appropriate supervision. It is not an easy decision.
Teachers and other school staff are faced with the same tough decisions. They need to provide for their families, but at what cost? What will happen if they get sick? Is it fair for the community to ask teachers to take the risk? All of that and … they really love their students. There are so many unanswered questions and so much about the virus that is still unknown. The school district has worked so hard to come up with a plan, using data and science, as well as keeping in mind the socio-economic factors involved for so many households. For many families, there doesn’t seem to be a good choice. There are “deal-breakers” on all sides.
The reality is, each family will make the decisions that are best for their family. Everyone who returns to school, and their families, will have more exposure than if they remained at home. Even if everyone wears masks, there is still risk, especially since many students will find it difficult to wear a mask properly all day. But we can help. I believe there are things the community can do to make their decisions easier and to make everyone safer.
One thing all residents can do is try to minimize the risk throughout the whole community. If we want the students and staff in our schools to be safe, if we want there to be a chance schools can stay open after they start, we have to wear masks. When we go outside our homes and it is impossible to social distance, we must wear masks. We must wear them in stores, in hair salons, when we go in and out of restaurants, and certainly when we are in office buildings and places where we might find ourselves in close quarters, like churches.
I know there are people who do not like masks, who question their effectiveness, and who feel wearing or not wearing a mask is a political statement. But, for the sake of the children in our community, we need to wear them, not forever, but for right now. So, for right now, please commit to wearing a mask. If you have children in your home, give them time to get used to wearing a mask for extended periods of time. Just as they need to become accustomed to going to bed at a reasonable time and getting up earlier, they need to practice wearing a mask. And they probably need to see their parents and grandparents wearing masks too.
Here’s the thing … I didn’t like it when summer vacation ended when my boys were young. But, as the grown-up, it was my job to do what was best for my children, so I found things about going back to school to be excited about so they could be excited too. Whatever decision you and your family are making, present it to your children in a positive, un-anxious way. Even if you secretly hate masks, buy cool, colorful ones and wear them. And friends, if you have neighbors or friends and family who have chosen a different path than the one your family has chosen, cheer them on, love them through it. We are all in this together. Be safe and remember: You are loved.
— The Rev. Kelley Becker is the senior minister of Disciples Christian Church in Bartlesville.