As parents, we all have feelings about our child's first day of school. It's a new beginning, a fresh start, and for some, the first time we have regularly-scheduled time away from our babies. But now, 16+ months into a world that COVID-19 turned upside-down, how will the first day of school be different from years past?
My 3-year-old daughter will start preschool in September. It will be her first school experience, and I'm nervous that COVID may negatively impact her first impressions. We don't yet know what the guidance will be when September rolls around, and I can't help but wonder how masks and social distancing will color her opinion.
Being a parent in 2020 and 2021 hasn't been easy. There are so many unanswered questions, and each household is trying to make the best decision for their family and their specific circumstances.
As a mom, and a fairly new one at that, sending my masked 3-year-old into a building I can't enter—to meet a room full of masked students and a masked teacher she's never met—is slightly terrifying. When I started preschool in 1991, I remember attending a few "practice days" before officially kicking off the school year. I was able to get acquainted with both my teacher and several peers. Will our children have the same opportunity?
We all recognize that masks and social distancing prohibit connection. How will my daughter know if another little girl is smiling at her? How will she know if the teacher is simply giving her direction and not scolding her? Will other children be able to hear her when soft-spoken words leave her covered mouth?
As a shy and anxious child, I have vivid memories of sitting on my kindergarten teacher's lap during morning circle time. I remember hugs from well-meaning peers, trying to cheer me up. Will this school year be devoid of touch? No holding hands at recess? No sitting knee-to-knee during story time?
I even worry about the little things like sharing a box of crayons. Will that be allowed, or will each student have their own disinfected art box? Will my daughter be able to eat lunch at a big table surrounded by friends, or will she eat alone at her little desk, six feet away from her closest classmate?
If school begins and my daughter gets into a regular routine, what will happen if there's an uptick in COVID cases? Will we go back to a start-and-stop schedule where children have to move from in-person to virtual and back again? How will this disruption in routine impact those who have never been to school before? Will they think this is normal?
If masks aren't required, will the 3-year-olds who have worn them in public for the past year-and-a-half be fearful of catching germs? Will they be afraid to go too close to one another? Will we see an increase in COVID cases? Will some kids still wear them, and will that create a divide?
At the end of the day, we're all in this together—we want what's best for humanity as a whole, but also for our children. While I don't have all of the answers, my daughter is my world, and her well-being is my guiding principle. My goal is to make her first day as normal and memorable as possible. I want her to be excited about school—about learning and growing and making friends.
On day one, she will have a special breakfast, heavy on the chocolate chip pancakes and light on the fruit. We'll break out the letterboard—Maddie's First Day Of Preschool—and take photos of her with her new backpack and lunchbox, chock-full of yummy snacks and a little note from mom, dad, and baby bro. I'll tuck a family photo into the side pocket of her bag, something to look at if she's feeling nervous. When we pick her up, we'll bring an after-school treat and ask her about her day. Art projects that make their way home will be proudly displayed on the refrigerator.
COVID-19 may have changed the world as we knew it, but it hasn't changed how we parent, how we love our kids, and how we aim to make every experience as exciting and special as possible. School in a post-quarantine world may look a little different, especially because we're not quite out of the woods yet, but this won't last forever. In the meantime, my family will be playing the cards we've been dealt and making the decision that's best for us as time goes on.
In between the messy, difficult-decision-making moments, life will move forward. Our children will have lots of firsts, lots of things to get excited about. And as the amazing parents we are, we'll continue to keep their childhood as happy as we can.