(Not Quite) Back To School

Here we are at the end of the summer. Along with other parents, I’ve been holding my breath as to whether we’re doing in-person schooling in the fall in the midst of COVID-19. After reflecting on last school year, it’s become more apparent that the distance learning didn’t work at all in our house – not for lack of effort by the school, our great teachers, or by the parents – we all gave it our best, but it just didn’t work for our first grader.

Now we’re T-minus 10 days from an already-delayed start of the school year. While our district has maintained that they will be doing in-person learning for elementary students, they’ve already walked secondary schools back to a hybrid model (rotating cohorts of 2 days per week). This week we’ve seen neighboring districts announce the suspension of in-person learning until October, with the announcements leaving a lot of ambiguity about the date.

During that time I’ve seen a lot of people take to social media (especially Facebook) to publicly express their concerns and fears about whether to return to schools, on both sides. While I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject, discussing it with my wife (who has been in logistical discussions all summer about how to safely open and operate a high school during COVID), I’ve purposefully avoided discussing this on social media. Facebook more and more just seems more toxic.

As the son of a teacher, the husband of a school counselor, and an adamant supporter of public education, I have the utmost sympathy towards school district leaders that are making excruciating decisions, when all options are the table are bad ones. They’re facing the “Kobayashi Maru” scenario, where they’re going to be criticized by all stakeholders, regardless of what decision gets made. As decisions get made (and changed), I think it’s only natural and appropriate to feel disappointment in the decision, as well as appropriately express the way this decision impacts the kids and their families. Mature adults should be able to compartmentalize the disappointment without expressing malice and anger at the officials making the decisions.

It does seem, however, that the officials are struggling in these areas in the process of making these decisions:

black wooden writing desk chair inside room
Photo by Rubén Rodriguez on Unsplash

Lack of transparency in the decision process

Watching these decisions unfold and reading the communications made by school districts as they’ve shifted dates and strategy, many announcements seem to omit the process and metrics that are being used to evaluate the decisions. Many cite recommendations made the health departments on all levels, but missing from those statements are the specific criteria that prompted the change.

It’s important that districts are forthcoming about the metrics they’re looking at (e.g. case positivity percentage, hospitalization numbers, virus reproduction R0), or if there are other factors that are being considered (staffing shortages, known outbreaks in relevant populations). As a community, it’s important we understand what data is driving the decision, and when it’s being evaluated. By being forthcoming about the process and data, the community could feel informed and empowered, rather than at the mercy at what’s perceived as shifting goalposts and detached arbitrary decisions.

Adapting re-opening strategies to specific schools and grade levels

It seems when districts were creating their plans, the scenarios seemed to encompass an “all or nothing” approach to all grade levels and schools. I understand that COVID-19 is novel and we’re learning more about it each day, but there does seem to be some consensus that spread is different for kids under 10 and those older than 10. As that became apparent, it seems that many districts did not take the opportunity to further refine their plans to provide different solutions to the age groups.

An opportunity was wasted early on to prioritize elementary schools, figuring out how to get those higher-impact/lower-risk grade levels operating in-person as safe as possible. Given the level of spread risk to those 10 and under, combined with the ineffectiveness of distance learning to that age group, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have conceded that high school should start with distance learning out the gate, especially since there are fewer concerns with leaving high school-aged teens at home. Given thatthe high school structure is at odds with cohorts, as well as the risk associated with older teens becoming virus spread vectors, a tough decision could be made to keep high schools in remote learning for the year.

There could be a scenario where the district focuses on sustainable in-person learning for elementary students. Plans to accommodate older and at-risk teachers could have been devised – perhaps a temporary swap where younger secondary school teachers could trade jobs with the teacher for the year (and even use each other as mentoring opportunities). I’ve also seen the idea floated that at-risk teachers could have Zoomed into classes to deliver the lessons, with the in-person facilitation of the class being done by a recent college grad or senior-year student teachers under emergency dispensation.

If the elementary plan resulted in positive results, districts could employ a plan to start in-person learning for middle schools. Vacant high school buildings could be repurposed to improve social distancing for middle schools (in addition to their current schools), sending the 7th and 8th graders to those schools.

These are just a few ideas, but the bottom line is that with things changing so quickly and drastically, school districts need to be nimble in their strategy. We’re seeing a little bit of this in some districts where secondary schools are employing different models, but it does seem that most districts are quick to paint all grade levels with the same broad brush – especially when it involves keeping all students at home.

Be clear about goals

This problem is not limited to the school districts, but rather our society as a whole. We’re not on the same page with what we’re looking to accomplish. This ambiguity gives the perception of shifting goalposts and ultimately makes people angry.

We need to separate the “opening” and “mitigation” strategies. I do agree that mitigation and stopping spread requires different tactics but again must try to be precise as possible. For opening, however, we’re not clear whether the goal is to have zero cases occur in the school district, or if it’s to reduce risk where possible, conceding that some spread will occur.

The problem is that a lot of our discussion about COVID is presented as a binary issue, couched in these polar opposites of people either dying from this, or not catching this. This spirals into whether people should stay home or live life as COVID doesn’t exist. There is a silent majority out there that are trying to live with this, mitigating (as well as avoiding) risk to themselves and their families where they can. However, this is not the same as ensuring that no new cases occur.

This notion is fueled by the assumption that a movie ending to the pandemic is iminent, where a vaccine arrives and overnight things are magically solved. The reality is that months and perhaps even years will go by before COVID isn’t at the forefront of our lives. To take the extreme solution of keeping people home until an arbitrary date that will inevitably get moved back is not going to be sustainable. We all need to take this pandemic seriously, but at the same time understand that drastic options cannot be long term. There needs to be some kind of sustainable solution, or at least continuous attempts to move in that direction.

I want every stakeholder – students, teachers, and parents – to be heard, but we do need to arrive at a collective decision as to whether schools are deemed as essential, and whether we can take realistic precautions to make it as safe as possible. We can’t keep schools closed in perpetuity while Grocery Stores, Amazon Delivery Centers, and meat-packing plants remain open.

I’ve also grown tired of those that continually bring up problems and concerns without proposing any solutions. As I stated above, these are all bad options, we’re just going to have to pick one of them and work through it. It’s also important to acknowledge that there has been a failure by government leaders on many levels. The CDC Guidelines reads more like a persuasive essay rather than a coherent plan.


This year is going to likely be one of the toughest in the lives of parents, teachers, administrators, and especially the students. We’re only going to get through it with being forthcoming about the information, quick to adapt to the changes, persistent about doing what’s best for everyone, as well as offering grace when things won’t work out.

COVID-19 at 3 Months: Zig Zagging Those Invisible Lines

This week will mark the third month of severe life disruption due to COVID-19. We’ve been one month into the “Safer At Home” transition, where things are trying to re-open and run at some limited capacity, but there’s still an emphasis on avoiding large gatherings – all along with the backdrop of 10+ days of major protests due to George Floyd’s murder.

Right now there is a sense of security that lies with being outdoors. The current belief is that virus spread is significantly lower when you’re outside, especially in this warmer weather. Watching these protests where thousands are gathered sets off alarms in my “socially distant conditioned” brain. Many are wearing masks, but it seems like all social distancing consideration has gone out the window. I know it’s for a righteous cause, but I can’t help but be concerned about whether we’re going to see super-spreader events that will manifest in the coming weeks.

One gets the sense that people are taking this less seriously as the weeks go by. It seems that every outing shows fewer people wearing masks. The mask-wearing seems to have devolved into a cultural issue, with people forgoing mask-wearing to make a political statement against being told what to do. There is a mixture of people cautiously taking the recommended precautions, while others are flaunting their disregard for them to make a statement. The frustration is definitely understandable as guidelines continue to evolve, as well as seeing a double-standard applied to the condemnation for people opening their businesses early, all the while thousands are chanting and screaming in the streets.

At home, it’s become difficult to explain the disparity of behavior to our kids, why we try to uphold certain standards when they see that others aren’t being as rigid. We struggle as we try to convey that the girls will need to continue to make adjustments and maintain awareness to do things they previously did before, but you do get a sense that they are also missing the normalcy. Clara, who always hates going shopping, told us that she misses going to the store.

There is quite a bit I miss about the pre-COVID life, but as things open up I’m still very reluctant to resume those activities. Despite missing people-watching in a coffee shop while I work, there’s no part of me that feels comfortable doing that (even if the opportunity arose). The same goes for my indoor spin cycle class, but in large part that I’ve become accustomed to biking outdoors on the trails. We do miss taking the girls on activities to the museum, library, and swimming pool, but the opening of those places seems to kindle apprehension about those activities.

My biggest hope is that Clara will be able to go back to school when fall comes, I’m cautiously optimistic, but we’ll see what occurs from the protests and whether we’ll see any epidemiological consequences.

Fingers are crossed, prayers are said.

COVID-19 at 2 Months: Invisible Lines Everywhere

After two months with everything shut down, we’re all trying to creep towards “the new normal” of life with COVID-19. There seems to be an abundance of anxiety from all different places. There are those worried that things are being rushed open too quickly with efforts that will be met with sudden spikes of infection, hospitalization, and deaths. There are those who are anxious to get businesses open get the economy moving forward, impatient with the slow rate of progress. There also seem to be those who are not accepting “the new normal”, whether they think the reaction is overblown, or that current mitigation suggestions are not relevant.

As we creep out of lock-down, everyone is drawing their own line of comfort and risk, then see others crossing those lines – whether it’s by strangers, neighbors, friends, or even family members. We’re seeing a vast spectrum of comfort levels being disrupted. On one hand, there are those that feel we’re moving too fast in opening things up and don’t feel comfortable yet leaving the house. On the opposite end, we are witnessing performative virtue signaling in people proudly announcing that they won’t wear masks, actively supporting businesses that are defying the loosened restrictions. It comes across as a performative machismo coated in ignorance, that just seems gross.

In our community, you see people trying to be responsible to an extent. People out walking or biking may not be wearing masks but seem to be trying to keep an appropriate physical distance. However when you go to a store or another public place, you see nearly everyone wearing a mask – now mostly by mandate, but before those dropped I would say 85% of people work a mask during my weekly grocery store run.

Our own neighborhood has been interesting. You see more and more kids out co-mingling, mostly in small groups, but you get this sense of the social bubble expanding as people are now having tertiary social connections through their expanded encounters. I can’t help but still feel a sense of nervousness when I see it.

Our own kids have been back at in-home daycare for over two weeks now, and we’ve felt that was a pretty big expansion of our social connections (going from our own family to now having connections with four other families). The girls are also playing with another neighborhood friend, as well. At this point, that’s been the limit to expanding our bubble, through small baby steps.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that these lines and bubbles are all relative. Colorado now has people able to go back into office settings at 50% capacity, and I’m seeing some of my friends on social media back in those settings (albeit with masks and trying to maintain the social distancing). Then it’s important to remember that we have essential workers that have been in the thick of it all along in the form of grocery workers, delivery drivers, and workers in other services that never shut down and have been living in this tension for months on end.

Everyone has their own backstory, their own circumstances, their own risk assessment, their own way of dealing with it. Right now it’s too easy to pass judgment on people without having the full story. We’re seeing a lot of public shaming going on in social media, with people jumping to conclusions. Sometimes it is warranted, but it does seem that much of it is uncalled for. The reality is that everyone is trying to do what they can to get by and figure out the new normal – or at least the new normal for now.

COVID-19: 7 Weeks In, Wearing Thin

As we’re into our seventh week in this COVID-19 shelter-in-place/stay-at-home/quarantine, life has really become a mixed bag of circumstances, consequences, and emotion.

Above all, it’s important to count our blessings: we are still healthy, gainfully employed, and luckily not in dire financial straights, and are lucky to have relatively few struggles compared to many others who have much to worry about. We’re also lucky that we haven’t seen the scary scenarios that were being predicted nearly two months ago.

That said, one word sums up our predicament: uncertainty. It seems that there’s more we don’t know than we know, and the lack of knowledge has forced people to make tough choices between bad options, with no potential good option in sight.

Our own daily lives are encompassed by doing the best we can with what we have, but it becomes difficult to ignore the consequences of the situation. In our own lives we’ve found the rhythm of a daily routine staying mostly at home. Aided by the nice spring weather, our daughters have grown accustomed to lots of independent play outside while we work, but also with more screen time than we’d care to have under normal circumstances. We’re getting by and keeping our sanity in tact.

We do greatly miss school, however. The remote learning that everyone does their best at is a poor substitute for the educational clamoring of a young first grader. While Clara still gets excited about learning, transitioning from play into school is still a struggle, and we can’t help but concede that our own best efforts as working parents fall far short of the quality of education at school. As with all young kids, we’re seeing educational stagnation, but accept this as a necessary short-term step to keep our societal health at bay. This is the way the rest of the school year will play out, all four weeks left of it. Going through pictures from past Mays reminded me that our “last day of school” picture is going to be an interesting one this year.

Colorado itself is transitioning from a “stay at home” order to a “safer at home” phase. The reality is that “safer at home” is basically “please still stay at home”. There are businesses that are starting to open up, trying to balance their own need to ensure the survival of their livelihoods, finding ways to be able to serve customers mitigating as much risk as they can in a sea of uncertainty. For the most part, however, people remain reluctant to venture out. Every time I get groceries or run errands (typically once per week) there’s a prevailing sense that you’re taking your life into your own hands, with the stores filled with a general sense of unease. For the most part, people are trying to follow the government’s directives of maintaining a 6-foot social distancing barrier, as well as wearing a mask. I’m very deliberate in not touching my face, sanitizing my hands right after I get in the car, scrubbing my hands the minute I get home.

It’s not clear whether this is the no normal (for now), or in a weird transitional state towards the new normal – back to the uncertainty. It seems that our town, state, the country is collectively holding their breath to see what’s coming next, but getting a little light-headed along the way.

I don’t mean to paint a grim picture of despair. On the contrary, we are taking the extra time at home as opportunities to work on different projects (like re-doing our garden area), play with our kids, and enjoy our time together as a family.

Our garden work

However, aside from being strategic in our meal planning (to avoid excessive trips out), we’ve had to learn with not having a plan that extends beyond a day – in large part because our options are limited, but also because we’re not quite sure what’s coming next. Right now there’s little we can do besides count our blessings and try to be optimistic about the future, but ready to begrudgingly accept setbacks.

Parenting in COVID-19

As we’ve finished the fourth week of the “Stay At Home” order, with schools and businesses closed, I wanted to reflect on the experience in parenting under COVID-19. I’m putting this here not because what we’re doing particularly stands out from anyone else’s experience, but that I can capture some of the fresh memories before they start to fade.

Home and Routines

In the last four weeks, we have not all driven to any places. In adhering to the “Stay Home” order, Bethany and I have tried not to venture out more than once per week, and only to go to the store to get groceries, cosmetics, and household goods. After filling up the gas tank a month ago, we’ve not even a quarter-tank into it. The girls have been in the car with me to do food pickups (as the schools are offering snacks and some meals for kids), but aside from that have not left the house.

With spending so much time at home, we’re lucky to be in the midst of spring and that we’re able to spend more time outdoors. The girls are at an age where they can play in the backyards by themselves and take advantage of that. We do venture out to the front yard at least once a day, where they ride bikes and roller-blade in the cul-du-sec. When things calm down at work, Bethany and I take turns being out there with our laptops so that we can try to both supervise and still get some work done.

The first week while home full-time, we tried to establish a more rigorous schedule, but had the luxury of Bethany on spring break and able to be present to the kids each day. As Bethany returned to work the following week, we had to let go over the rigors of the schedule and allow it to flow into a routine. That’s changed again now that Clara has started school again.

Our typical day starts with breakfast, now followed by school/remote learning, then they spend the morning either playing inside, watching a show, or playing outside in the backyard. During lunchtime, we may be able to sneak out front and get some more play, followed by afternoon “quiet time”, which consists of spending 1-2 hours in our rooms with our tablets. At that point, one of us can take a break from work and be a little more active in their play before we start making dinner.

Education and Enrichment

Clara Remote Learning

As for school, we’ve familiarized ourselves and expectations with remote learning. With an elementary-aged child, I would argue that they’ve had the most severe disruption in their education, as they probably benefit the most from in-person instruction and interaction with their peers. Our school district has taken an approach that I most appreciate: we’re going to give you some guidance and structure for each day and week, allow for some check-in and interaction with the teacher and class, but for the most part you’re on your own. Grade-wise, the school work is considered optional, leaving it up to each family to do what they can.

I think there’s a tacet concession that we’re trying to avoid educational regression. We’re lucky that Clara was a little ahead in her subjects, but I really do feel for the kids who needed more intervention, especially as their parents probably may not have the luxury of time to provide that extra support. It does make me wonder whether there’s going to be a lasting impact, or if this too will just a blip in their educational career.

We’ve also become accustomed to virtual extra-curricular activities, such as dance class. Again, we’re at a difficult age because our kids are aware enough to realize the change, but are not old enough to appreciate or understand why we’re in this situation. The result is that getting them to start the activity can be like pulling teeth, but once they start they feel a sense of normalcy and even enjoy the experience.

Explaining the Virus

With our kids being 6 and 4, we’ve been very cognizant about how we explain the situation and the information being exposed to them. Rather than watching the news, we end up reading it through websites and hearing it on podcasts, so I think the girls are insulated from overhearing about it too much. I’m sure that they’ve probably heard the terms “corona-virus” and “COVID-19” without knowing what they mean. That said, they obviously are aware that things have drastically changed, with all of us being home.

Rather than talk about COVID-19, many of our conversations have been couched with the “germs” term: We’re staying home because there are some germs out there that can make people really sick, especially if they’re older or are dealing with something else. They’re asking us to stay home so we don’t spread more germs out there. To the extent, I think especially Clara knows at a high level, why her life has been so disrupted, that things are generally closed and that we’re staying home, but hopefully hasn’t heard about all of the hospitalization and death that has been surrounding this pandemic. That said, we’ve been really intentional about not raising their anxiety level.

Maintaining Sanity

The biggest challenge has definitely been trying to find a balance between our responsibilities as parents, the reality of both of us now working from home full time, coupled with the fact that our kids are also home all day. As a working parent, I have valued being able to segment my time, pouring into work while the kids are at school and daycare, then working to be more present to my kids when they’re home. However having the kids home has blurred these lines, requiring context-switching in a matter of minutes, challenging our ability to be effective at anything. Ultimately it has come down to stringing together good days, and accepting that rough days happen and that tomorrow is an opportunity to start fresh. Our biggest blessing is that the weather has been mostly nice and the girls have been able to be outside, you can definitely feel the tension when the weather is cold and we start to get cabin fever.

In the end, it’s still important to put all of this into context: we’re currently healthy, in a safe home, all together. We’ve learned to live through some of the chaos and understand that a home that has everyone present 24×7 is not going to look immaculate, we try to reset at the end of the day and start over again.