July is always a challenging time of year for me. When all of my friends in the USA are celebrating the start of summer holidays, we still have several more weeks of school in England. But this year is different. My friends back home are stressing over a summer without summer camps or swimming pools, and I’m facing the decision of whether or not I did the right thing by sending my sixth grader back into the classroom in the middle of a pandemic.
Facing an Impossible Choice
The English school year runs from September until mid-July, with lots of breaks spread throughout the year. When the lockdown started in late March, we went into it knowing that our children would likely go back to school before the year ended. After all, we had twelve weeks of school, plus four weeks of break left in the calendar. It was unimaginable that the lockdown could last for so long.
As such, it came as no surprise when the Government announced the plan to begin reopening schools in June. The plan included a phased return, with the “critical” year groups starting back first: kindergarten, first grade and sixth grade. The rationale was that the youngest students couldn’t learn well online, and the sixth graders needed those last few weeks with their teachers before moving up to high school in September.
Although the Government mandated the reopening, they left the choice to going back to school up to the parents. Our daughter, desperate to see her friends, immediately voted yes. For us, her parents, it wasn’t so black and white. Could the school keep her safe? Would she follow the same strict hygiene guidelines if left without hyper-supervision? Was she better off continuing with online lessons, or would a small taste of “normal” life help during this critical transition year? Even my magic eight ball struggled to find an answer.
What Returning to School Really Looks Like
Back to school normally means new backpacks, notebooks and #2 pencils. Back to school following a lockdown means Ziploc bags, packed lunches and staggered start times. Nothing about returning looks the same, and in some ways that is reassuring. I don’t want the world to treat things as business as usual when they are far from it.
So how do you reopen schools and still keep kids safe? Here in England, it means reduced class sizes, strict social bubbles and minimal interaction. Our teachers jave become drill sergeants and they run their operations with a military-like precision. We have a 10-minute window for drop-off, an exact collection time, no buses and no after school care. My daughter’s class of 21 students has become a class of 10, and they spend most of the day within the confines of the classroom. Even the playground has been divided up, with each group getting a dedicated play area.
Distance Learning Continues, Too
Returning to school doesn’t mean leaving online learning behind. Even though my daughter is back in the classroom from 8:25 to 3:20, some of her classes are still online. This is out of necessity.
Halving class sizes means we need double the number of teachers. When factoring in those who cannot return to work—either due to health reasons or because they are caring for their own children—schools have even fewer teaching staff available. Plus, we still have a group of children learning from home.
The end result is a classroom that looks like a mash-up of Little House on the Prairie and The Jetsons—small groups, in a single room, with a giant talking head on a screen. And lots and lots of anti-bacterial hand gel.
Parenthood is Full of Hard Choices
As I sit here on the eve of another day of sending my daughter back to school, I find it useful to remind myself that parenthood is full of hard, sometimes impossible, choices. A little bit of perspective helps when it feels like the world is ending.
Weighing up the choice on whether to allow your child to return to school is very personal. It requires a mathematical formula so complex even my mathematician husband struggles to remember all of the variables. There is literally no point in judging someone else’s choice. We must assume we all want what is best for our children—and that might look different for someone else. It isn’t anyone’s place to criticize.
Some friends have asked why the schools need to open, and I get that. If your child thrives at online learning, it can seem like a senseless risk. But we can’t forget about the kids who don’t have access to computers, iPads and the internet. Or those who need a teacher to guide them rather than a written set of instructions. In our case, our shy sixth grader chooses to fade away into the background rather than speak up in an online meeting.
Since her return in June, my daughter has been giddy with joy to be back with her friends. She doesn’t care that there are handwashing regimens, temperature checks, anti-bac everywhere and a weird lesson plan. The school’s careful approach appears to be working; no one has gotten sick and the students beam with joy at drop-off and pick-up. My husband and I remain nervous, but hopeful.