We were given 10 days to decide. Our school district offered encouraging plans for in-person and distance learning in the safety strategies they laid out. But for my husband and me, weighing these difficult back-to-school choices was complicated by the fact that we just couldn’t seem to agree on which of our terrible options was the least terrible.
I’m a former homeschool kid, a self-described “free-range parent,” and a total wimp when it comes to disappointing my kids. With an incoming kindergartner who can barely wait to climb aboard the big yellow bus with his big sisters and a fourth grader who’s been counting down the days of this infernal pandemic to see her friends again, for me, devastating their precious hopes and dreams felt like a big, fat, unmovable "no." I was in favor of sending them back.
The father of my children has never home-schooled, often describes himself as a “helicopter parent,” and is a bit of a hard-a*s when it comes to telling the kids no. In his view, there was only one factor even worth considering: safety. He couldn't fathom sending the kids back to school: “All those kids wiping their sticky palms up their noses, trading lunches, laughing directly into each other’s faces...” he said, shaking his head.
Of all our options, 'normal' just isn’t on the 2020 menu.
As a free-range parent, I believe life is all about assessing risk and doing our best. The masks, hand-washing stations, and social-distancing requirements put forth by our school all seemed to mostly satisfy this philosophy. And if I’m being honest, I clung to these reasons based on my own disappointing homeschooling experience. Whenever people heard of my homeschool alumni status and asked, “So will you homeschool your own children?” I usually laughed, "never" being my private joke.
But as we watched as our first grader fought a losing battle with her face mask, looping one elastic band over her ear just for the other side to slip, my husband remarked, “And that right there is precisely why face masks won’t help.”
In terms of persuasion, my husband’s arguments mostly revolved around the general nastiness of children. For my part, I harped on the potential disruption of our children's emotional development if our son didn’t have the ideal kindergarten year, or if our daughter’s weren’t able to see their friends. But this is where my husband got me. He pointed out that our children just don’t get to have normal this year. Of all our options, “normal” just isn’t on the 2020 menu.
I thought about the unwelcome words that had been faintly echoing in the back of my mind since we first received the letter: you can say no to school.
I thought of my kids in masks all day, the average literage of snot in a given elementary school in late November, and the age and overall vulnerability of the kindergarten teacher who has loved and taught both of my girls and would now teach my son.
Then I thought about the unwelcome words that had been faintly echoing in the back of my mind since we first received the letter: you can say no to school.
Many parents really have few to no options. Parents whose livelihoods depend on jobs that take them away from home in particular. My husband and I both work from home, and while I don’t want to add “school teacher” to my already full plate, I can.
And so, I realized, I must.
Even as I accepted that I must swallow my own “never,” I recognized a con to distance learning I hadn’t fully conceptualized but had nonetheless factored into my earlier reservations. As the primary breadwinner, whose income absolutely floats our bills, I worried my husband would do what he usually does when it comes to our children: label the problem “Olivia’s job” and forget about it.
But with a job of this size, this default dynamic simply wouldn’t do. So I agreed on distance learning for our three children, but with an addendum that involved another hard choice for my husband: He could either a) help with 50% of the kids’ schooling, or b) recognize that teaching is now my only full-time job and he will have to pick up my slack in other areas.
Hating both of these options, my husband reluctantly settled on option B. Unfortunately, I know just how he feels.