Blogs: B.C.'s back-to-school plan has me riding an emotional rollercoaster

Julie Maclellan

This isn’t what I thought my daughter’s Grade 3 year would look like.

I thought this might be the year she would join the choir, or maybe even the track club. We’d have swimming lessons and art classes on the weekends, and playdates with a few of her school besties.

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I never thought this would be the year I’d wake up gasping from anxiety-ridden dreams about the prospect of sending her back out into the world of human contact.

Welcome to yet another episode of Pandemic Parenting 2020.

Along with just about every other B.C. mom I know (the obsession doesn’t seem to have affected the dads of my acquaintance as much, but that’s a topic for another post), I spent Wednesday glued to the press conference by Education Minister Rob Fleming and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, detailing how B.C.’s children will be heading back to class full-time in the fall.

I listened to Dr. Henry, in her usual calm and thoughtful manner, outline plans for a new “learning group” model that will see elementary students grouped in cohorts of 60.

She said a great deal else, but that’s about where my brain got stuck.

Sixty.

She might as well have said six hundred, or six thousand, for the vastness of that number in my mind. When you’ve been living in a world dominated by the reality of six-person social bubbles, 60 seems an impossible number to grasp. The idea of sending my daughter to school to be in contact with 59 other people makes my mind reel. I think about all of those other people and wonder who they are. How many people are in their families’ bubbles? How cautious have they been during the pandemic? Have they been isolating and socially distancing and hand-washing and wearing masks, or have they had a “let’s go to the beach and to heck with the crowds” approach to summer? Do any of them have chronic illnesses or suppressed immune systems or elderly people in their “bubbles”? How do I keep my family safe from their families, and how do I keep their families safe from mine?

Deep breaths.

I know that all possible precautions are being and will be taken to keep children and staff members safe. I know there will be new health and safety protocols and that social distancing will be enforced as much as possible (though I can’t see how possible that will be in my daughter’s school - an older building that’s already operating at more than capacity, with portables). I know that all of the logistics that will go into making the school year possible – new schedules for bells and breaks, new policies for everything from daily physical activity to music class to bathroom use – are not mine to take on. I know that staff and administrators are already working at full speed behind the scenes to make this all work.

But …

Deep breaths.

Let me say this: My daughter needs to go to school. We’ve been at home together for 139 days, and she needs a change. She needs to not be cooped up all day with her two cats, her iPad and her bookshelf for company. She needs to be in a world with peers and friends. She needs to learn in an environment where she can genuinely learn – where there’s a teacher who will engage with her, not two parents who are both working full-time but who occasionally step away from their computers to help with Mathletics or nag her to finish her assignments or tell her to go read a book.

What’s more, I need this. I need her to go to school. I need to be able to work without feeling guilty for ignoring my child. I need to be able to focus without feeling terrible for saying, multiple times a day, “I don’t have time right now” or “can you tell me about this later” or “please let’s save that until after 4:30.” I need to not spend all day, every day, wondering how it’s possible to parent full-time and work full-time in the same space, at the same time (spoiler alert: it’s not).

We all need this. But …

Deep breaths.

This whole thing is such a rollercoaster. There’s a part of me that’s relieved to be told my kid must go back to school full-time. There’s a part of me that’s glad the decision’s been taken out of my hands, that I’ve been presented with a new reality and that my job is to now make it work. There’s a part of me that’s almost glad to have no choice in the matter. (And, yes, I say “no choice,” because, realistically, for most of us, there is no genuine alternative. Yes, parents who so choose may be able to sign their kids up for home schooling or distance learning – but that’s not an option for the vast majority of us who already have full-time jobs and who can’t take on the task of educating our children from home without giving up a paycheque to do so.)

But there’s an equally large part of me that’s grappling with a whole bunch of other emotions. Some of it’s anger. B.C. parents are being put in the position of sending our children out to be guinea pigs in a giant social experiment that could go sideways at any moment, and we aren’t being given a choice. (Not to mention B.C. teachers – and, worse yet, B.C. teachers who are also parents.)

Deep breaths.

Living right there with the anger is the anxiety that’s become so much a part of my life that I almost forget what it feels like to not wake up worried.

Along with it all is a strange sort of sadness. The life we’re living now is far from ideal. But it’s a life we’ve become familiar with. Since we were all forced into semi-lockdown in March, we’ve created our own new reality. As much as there are parts of that reality I can’t wait to shed, there are also parts I want to cling to.

I love letting my daughter wake slowly in the morning and wander around the house in her pyjamas. I love not having the weekday stress of rushing her to eat and get dressed and brush her teeth and hurry up already we’ve got to get you to daycare so I can get to work and have you even brushed your hair today and where is your lunch bag and did you put your planner in your backpack. I love having her around during the day for a random hug, a silly joke, a small interaction where she brings a cat over to take part in a Zoom meeting with my co-workers. I love hearing her giggle in the background while she’s chatting to a friend on Messenger Kids or watching a silly video on Youtube.

Mostly I just treasure the security. The comfort of knowing that this space we’re in – this messy, chaotic, disorganized, too-cluttered space – is our safe zone. As long as we’re in here, we’re safe from the ever-present, looming spectre of COVID-19.

It strikes me that this must be a bit like what a prisoner feels like when getting out of jail: longing for freedom and oh-so-ready to experience life again, but feeling trepidation about the idea of stepping out into a world where anything can happen.

That’s the crux of it all, I think.

Anything can happen. And once I send my daughter off to school, I lose an enormous amount of control over practically all of it.

I’m an optimist at heart, though. In spite of it all, I genuinely believe everything will work out. I’m grateful to be living in B.C., with the guiding hand of Dr. Henry at the helm. I’m grateful to be living in New Westminster, a small school district where everyone involved in the system strikes me as being genuinely willing to work together to make this “Stage 2” experiment work for all of us.

And, between deep breaths, I remind myself that things can still change. There are 39 days until Sept. 8 – and experience has shown us that, in COVID-19 time, 39 days can be an eternity. Things could change markedly for the better, and many of parents’ anxieties could be eased. Things could change markedly for the worse, and this whole Stage 2 plan could be thrown out the window.

Or they could stay more or less the same, and we will all step out into the uncertainty of this next phase of life with a collective desire to make it work, the best way we can, in the face of this new world of ours.

To everyone who works in the education system: I salute you, and I thank you for all the hard work you have ahead of you this fall. To all my fellow parents: Solidarity. Whatever your story, however you’re feeling, just know you’re not alone. Whatever rollercoaster ride we find ourselves on in September, at least we’re riding it together.

And one last thing? I’d like to suggest that Dr. Henry use her calm and soothing voice to record some bedtime stories for parents, so I can play her reassuring tones for myself at nighttime and maybe, just maybe, get some sleep before school starts again.

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