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The Impossible Decision Facing Parents After Summer

I have three days left. Three days until I have to decide if I'm buying face masks along with my kid's school supplies. Three days until I have to decide whether she will be doing first grade over Zoom or walking into a building full of other people for each day of schooling during a global pandemic. Three days until I have to make the impossible decision to send my kid back to her beloved school, back to her friends and teachers, or to keep her home as COVID cases rise and we turn our kitchen table and Chromebook into a first-grade classroom. My school district has put the choice to us directly — we need to check a box by July 10 — but parents everywhere are weighing the same factors.

I have a stack of papers in our playroom Alice is keeping for when she goes back to school. "I'll need this to take back to my teacher when the sickness is over," she'll say as she hands me a finished worksheet, even though we aren't sure when that will be. It took me two weeks after Gov. Brian Kemp announced that Georgia schools would be closed for the remainder of the year before I got up the courage to tell my daughter she wasn't returning to her kindergarten classroom.

She knows the sickness isn't over. She knows we have to wear masks when we go somewhere — which is rare — and that things are still different and uncertain. She knows she won't get to eat in the cafeteria and that there won't be any field trips or school dances.

And she still desperately wants to go to first grade. I desperately want her to go to first grade.

In late June, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a firm statement on reopening schools: Just do it. The organization wrote about the risks of children getting and transmitting COVID-19 and the social distancing guidelines recommended for safety, and the bottom line was that if kids can be in school, they should be in school. Even if they can't sit 6 feet apart. Even if they have to share crayons. Even if they have to stagger playground times. Some parents are already making the decision to homeschool, knowing the virus won't disappear by the beginning of September.

I don't know what to do. I know what I want to do. I want to send my daughter back to her beloved school. I want to assume my role as PTA secretary by going to in-person meetings and hosting bake sales and passing out school supplies. I want my little girl to be in a bright, happy classroom learning math and practicing her incredible reading skills while sitting on beanbags and walking to the library. I don't want a webcam to be her only outlet anymore.

Can I manage the anxiety of taking her temperature every morning and reminding her to wash her hands and sending her to school with a rainbow backpack and pigtails and a d*mn mask on her face?

"I'm not willing to risk my child's life for a school building," someone writes in a Facebook group I'm in, and my cheeks flush with shame and anger and sadness. Am I a bad parent for wanting to send her back? I feel like it's more than just a school building, and I swear I'm not just grasping at straws for normalcy, and I do care about my kid's health — I wake up at night worried she'll go to school and contract COVID-19 and die — and and and and and.

"I'm not willing to risk my child's life" is becoming the new "I don't know how you do it"; the new "I wouldn't be able to do that if I were in your shoes." It is a broad stroke of parent shaming, designed to look like awe. You must be so strong for sending your child to school in a global pandemic. Me, I just can't risk my child getting sick because I love them too much.

It is an impossible decision. Neither option is good. (Except one of them keeps your kid safe.) There's no foolproof plan. (Except one of them doesn't unnecessarily expose your child to a potentially deadly virus.)

I am paralyzed with fear over clicking "distance learning" or "in-person education" on our district's website.

I work full time from home, even when we're not in a global pandemic. My job puts food on the table, covers our insurance, keeps clothes on my girls. My husband is working full time from home for the foreseeable future. His job does the same things mine does, but his also requires a lot of phone calls and a lot of explaining things to people and a lot of time in a room with the door shut.

Distance learning falls squarely in my lap, and it doesn't matter how good a husband he is or how engaged a father he is — my job has more flexibility than his. I am the one who will have to teach our daughter first grade, while tending to her toddler sister, and also completing 40 hours of work a week.

I have a great boss. I work for a good company. I still can't do it.

But can I live with myself if I send her to school and there's an outbreak? Can I deal with the nights of zero sleep if she comes home from school saying her throat hurts? Can I manage the anxiety of taking her temperature every morning and reminding her to wash her hands and sending her to school with a rainbow backpack and pigtails and a d*mn mask on her face?

Swim lessons and Girl Scout meetings and T-ball games all stopped on a dime. Can school be her one thing she's allowed now?

Alice cried every day of distance learning in the spring — and that was only 90 minutes of school each day. She was over Zoom by about the third video call. It was too hard for her to see the teacher she loved so much, all of her best friends, and not be able to talk to them or see them or hug them. Art projects are zero fun when you're doing them at the kitchen table with your mommy, and when the school day isn't broken up by things like going to the playground with your friends or eating your lunch together or going to the library, you learn really quickly that school isn't as fun as you thought.

She was miserable, and in turn, I was, too. If I can send her to first grade — as different as it may look — and let her have this one thing, shouldn't I? Can I minimize the rest of her exposure? Can we continue social distancing and ignore stores? She hasn't been inside a building that wasn't our house or a family member's house since March. Swim lessons and Girl Scout meetings and T-ball games all stopped on a dime. Can school be her one thing she's allowed now?

I watch people run out to bars and to clubs and to giant house parties without masks, and I seethe. I had to stop paying attention to the parking lot at Kroger when I pick up my online order because my heart hammered so hard I thought it would push me out the car to scream at people on Instagram Live. Why aren't any of you wearing your mask? Why aren't any of you social distancing? Why can't you follow the rules so my first-grader — my smart, beautiful, social little butterfly of a kid — can have just one thing?

This decision is impossible, and instead, I think I'll just sit here in this in-between place and let myself drown in the what-ifs. What if we just go back to the early days of the pandemic when we were baking bread and doing puzzles and it all felt kind of fun and novel and the hope of a fresh start in the fall was on the horizon? Get the DeLorean, Doc Brown. I'm ready to go back.