A few months ago, as I was driving my daughter home from the park, I noticed that she was unusually quiet, so I decided to check in on how she was feeling about the upcoming school year.
"I'm scared because I won't know anyone. Can I take my puppy with me?" she quietly asked. I looked in the rearview mirror to see her holding up her tattered brown and white scruffy dog that she carries around for comfort. The windows were down, making her wavy brown hair blow wildly in the first cool breeze of the season. I glanced up from the road, looking into the reflection of her huge hazel eyes that were so clearly seeking assurance.
I knew the answer, but I was too afraid to tell her in that moment that, no, she would not be able to take her toy dog into school because it poses another health threat. Small stuffed creatures can be carriers of endless amounts of germs, therefore making them off-limits inside the classroom—especially during a pandemic. I choked and said I didn't know, but I'd find out the answer.
My 5-year-old daughter is attending in-person kindergarten during a pandemic, and I'm terrified by the knowledge that I won't be able to emotionally and physically protect her from all of the unknowns that the year will bring. I wasn't even able to walk her into her classroom on the first day of school, as my mom did for me, because of COVID.
While the Brooklyn public school she was set to attend has gone predominantly remote, we decided to send her to a small school in Long Island where she can, at least for now, attend in-person each day.
Two things are glaringly true: We're taking a risk by letting her go in-person and the level of privilege here is undeniable.
The fact that we even are able to entertain options sets us apart from most. The impact of COVID-19 has radically worsened racial and economic inequalities across the country, having grave implications for minority and disadvantaged students whose families do not have choices.
I've asked myself time and time again, if she's healthy and we have the extreme privilege of considering different schooling options, why do I still feel so sad?
When the shutdowns first happened, I had hoped, along with everyone else, that the pandemic would be a thing of the past by now. I pictured her first day of kindergarten being a time of celebration; now I am coming to understand that I, along with so many other parents, am experiencing ambiguous loss.
Thirty years later, I still vividly remember the feeling of stepping into my own warm, colorful kindergarten classroom. It was a space for exploration, curiosity and discovery, and oftentimes felt safer than home. On that tattered alphabet carpet, I learned to tie my shoe, navigate new friendships, and that my actions, like coloring all over the floor during nap time, have consequences. Of course, I want these same things and more for my own child.
Instead, the reality is that this back to school season is painful for everyone involved. The teachers that are risking themselves to educate our little ones, the essential workers that have no choice but to send their children into school buildings that may lack funding for proper sanitation and ventilation, and the innocent kiddos that have rapidly adapted to a life lived behind a mask without a friend's touch… it's all just awful.
The collective heartbreak in the air is palpable and all I know to do is acknowledge it and encourage those around me to do the same.
So far, my pandemic predictions have been wildly inaccurate and far too optimistic, so I have no clue what this winter will hold for my child. Her school may be shut down or someone may get sick—these are risks we are taking and there could be consequences to follow. What I do know is that we're incredibly fortunate to have the options that we do.
And, my heart is breaking from the knowledge that I cannot protect my daughter from all of the hard things. There is an overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the moments that I'm not able to offer her a blanket of assuredness, but the truth is that life has always been and will continue to be full of uncertainties, pandemic or not.
The last several months have been a lesson in the fact that my daughter is her own person, no longer in my womb, and I cannot protect her from pain and heartache. To do so would be mean denying her the dignity of the human experience, one that rewards struggle with the gifts of reflection and resilience.
After being told that she'll have to wear a mask in school, my little one's face crumpled and the tears started to form. "But my new friends won't be able to see that I'm smiling." There was nothing that I could say to take away her hurt and fears. I nodded and reached for her tiny body, kissing the top of her unruly, coconut-scented hair. "This stinks and I'm so very sorry."
All I can do in these deeply vulnerable moments is to hope that we will both look back on this time and better understand the value of family, health and connection. Maybe we'll always hug our friends a little tighter because there was a time that we couldn't. Or maybe we'll catch ourselves, once-in-a-while, savoring the breeze as it hits our bare, unmasked cheeks.
The pandemic will always serve as a reminder that we can make it through hard things, gripping onto one another gently when the hurt is simply too much to hold.