By Brittany Ryzenga

As summer came to an end parents across the globe had been anxiously anticipating the arrival of “Back to School 2020”, unsure of what back to school would truly mean this year amidst a global pandemic.   After months of stay at home orders, many still somewhat in place, would children be allowed to learn together once again?  

In March, our five year old daughter was sent home from the year-round learning and child care center where she attended Young 5s.  She would have typically continued to attend part time throughout the summer at the center’s “Summer Camp” while my husband and I worked, however, like children across the world, she remained home all summer.  Her school/learning center only allowed children of front line or essential workers working out of the home to attend so those employees required to work out in the field during the stay at home orders could have the care they needed for their children. Like many other parents, we naively assumed it was short-term and that our daughter would be returning.  Instead, we returned in July only to pick up a bag of her winter gear (snow boots, snowsuit, gloves and hat) that was eerily untouched since her last day where she had played outside in the snow with friends at recess.  In the bag was a binder of her years at the center that she first started attending at just 12 months old, graduating classroom to classroom from the “walkers” room to the room where she started saying her first words and met her best friend, Elise, to the classroom she first wrote her name.  The binder was to be given to the Young 5ers when they walk the stage each summer at the center’s summer graduation, a known-among-the-family’s, big family picnic celebrating the children’s years at the center with teachers that felt like family.  Their walk across the stage signified their graduation from childcare into elementary school.  For the first time, the end of the year graduation didn’t happen.  With stay-at-home orders still in place and a quiet school, the summer graduation celebration was cancelled due to gathering regulations as well as health and safety concerns. 
Our daughter just started kindergarten and we’re grateful that she is allowed to be back in-person, learning from a wonderful teacher with her peers.  Our school district gave us the option to choose between virtual learning or in-person, with the understanding that the virtual learning option would not be with their typical teacher (as their assigned teacher would be teaching in the classroom) and also that there would be a high probability that the in-person students will end up having to go virtually anyway, but would start with and then continue virtually with their assigned teacher.  We struggled with the decision but were also grateful to have had the opportunity to be able to decide, unlike many families across the country.  For example, California is still actively distance learning, virtually, with no timeframe of when in-person or a hybrid-style of learning may be an option.  I know that there are many pros and cons of all learning options that families are faced with during these times so I thought I would dive a little deeper into what our Back to School has looked like, as well as get the perspective of some other parents.  With many families facing unique situations, I spoke with some parents and gathered their input on the current circumstances they’re tackling as a family. 

It’s with agreeance that in-person school is essential to many students as it can offer social interaction, productivity, positive challenges, and routine.  A lot of children may have a hard time sitting in front of a computer or iPad and work best with hands-on learning.  Most children also respond better to an adult that is not their parent.  Often not thought about, is the well-being of young children that school can provide.  School offers safety check-ins with teachers and staff for students that have hard home situations.  Additionally, school can be a place where some children that may not otherwise be guaranteed two meals a day are receiving them.  I spoke with one mother that preferred in-person learning, saying that virtual learning was taxing on their entire family.  Managing children’s class meetings, virtual assignments, and not to mention, technology issues can be a tremendous cause of stress and anxiety.  It’s also merely impossible for working parents to feel successful at both work and assisting their children with virtual school.  Despite the frustrations some have shared, others have seen it as a rare opportunity that they might not have otherwise had.  They’re enjoying virtual learning and looking at it as a gift and treasuring the unique time together.  Also, virtual learning is obviously the most safe in terms of avoiding exposure to the virus.   

We decided that the many benefits of in-person learning were important to our family, but as working parents, the looming question of if the child will need to home-quarantine due to Covid exposure or if the school is forced to shut down and our children will be sent home to virtual learning at anytime is a constant worry (especially for a planner like me!).  We’re thankful to feel a little bit of normalcy during these crazy times with the return of in-person learning but things also look very different and feel far from “normal.”  We’re all aware that the children are wearing masks and some to different degrees.  Some schools do not have air conditioning.  Our daughter’s school is wearing them all day, including at recess, when they play outside on the playground (staggered by grade to not intermingle too many children).  She is in Spanish Immersion for the first year so not being able to see the teacher’s pronunciation of the Spanish words she’s speaking can be tough.  She also is a tender-hearted, loving little girl that thrives on high-fives, hugs and she loves to share with friends.  All things that are not allowed in the classroom right now.  They eat lunch in their classrooms and do not get to see friends from other classes.

Our district and school has done a phenomenal job of creating a system to keep everyone safe and we’re grateful each day for how smooth it seems as a parent.  However also speaking as a parent, it’s been tough sending our child off so impersonally… especially a 5 year old her first year.  Parents are not allowed in the building so selfishly, I’m saddened to not be able to spend time in or volunteer in my child’s classroom.  At drop off/pickup we have a sign on our dash with our child’s name and classroom, and are instructed to stay in the car.  We are asked to not get out of the car to give hugs but instead to stay in the car and let the child get in or out in order to help keep the process flowing smoothly and for everyone’s health and safety.  With this being our daughter’s first year and it being a new school, she doesn’t know any different but also wants to run up to me after school and it hurts my mama heart to not be able to.  Prior to school starting I had hyped up the “being a big kid means you get a locker!” as we materialistically bought a mirror to “decorate” the inside of her future locker door, but we were later informed that she would not have a locker due to students not being allowed to share them, resulting in there not being enough for all students this year. 

Our local recreation program has allowed some sports that may maintain social distance or are played outside so our daughter is also playing “Kinder Kickers” recreation soccer where they wear their masks while playing outside, all spectators are required to sit 6’ apart while wearing a mask, and only two spectators are allowed to watch the game per participant.  For children with married parents, that means that both parents may attend but what about siblings or grandparents that have anticipated cheering on their brother, sister or grandchild at a sporting event?  What about those children with divorced and remarried parents that have multiple parents or guardians?  We’re grateful that our area is allowing some sports but the restrictions on the number of spectators has some family members hurt.

Overall there have been many challenges but I’ve also realized that many of the anxieties and worries are my own and that my daughter doesn’t know any different.  We have to choose to see the positives in it all and we are eternally grateful to our amazing teachers and staff that are working so hard to follow guidelines and make in-person learning safe and possible.  Despite things feeling far from “normal,” our daughter absolutely loves her teacher and staff, has met some great new friends (while safely distanced!) and is learning- which is what is most important.