a blond boy wearing a facemask
(Photo/iconscout.com-Janko Ferlic CC0)

First day of school — a new state, new anxieties

From the moment I woke up, this morning was different. My alarm went off at 6:45 a.m., one of the only times I’d set it since the pandemic hit. I got up and started to prepare the breakfast my children had requested the night before: a breakfast hot dog (a peeled banana in a hot dog bun, garnished with raspberries and smothered in peanut butter and yogurt). They had seen it in a kids’ magazine, and it was their choice for their special breakfast on the first day of school.

Then I dropped my 4-year-old and 8-year-old off at school for the first time in six months. The joy and relief I thought I would feel — after spending every hour of every day in their presence since March — was heavily clouded by my anxiety and nervous anticipation.

Just preparing for the first day of school in these unprecedented times was a job and a half. My kids usually get lunch at school and eat with their friends; now it must be packed daily with simple, handheld foods that won’t attract bugs (most of their meals will be outside). School and art supplies are not being shared among the children, so last week I ordered items (from a school-provided list) that will be labeled with my oldest son’s name and kept in his locker.

Their schools require them to bring at least two masks a day, and though we’ve been accumulating kids’ masks for months, I fully expect my kids to begin losing theirs immediately. We have a dozen more on order already.

Sending our kids to in-person school is only possible for us because we’ve left Brooklyn, New York, and will ride out the school year in a small town in Maine near my family. Covid transmission here is low, and we’ve found schools that are taking strong precautions, have low enrollments, and, most importantly, have outdoor education programs that they have made even more robust for 2020-21. Our kids will spend about half their school time outside, even in winter.

It’s a choice available to us because we have the support and encouragement of my family, and the ability to work remotely.

Is placing the kids at new schools during this disruptive time the right thing to do? I’m not certain.

We recently went back to New York to tie up loose ends, and life there right now feels comfortable and safe, with most people wearing masks and going outdoors for recreation and safe social activities. And teachers and administrators there are working hard to be creative about doing their very best for New York City kids. But there’s undoubtedly a lot of trepidation and uncertainty about the school year, which has already been delayed.

I may never know if we’re making the best choice, but it’s a choice, at a very uncertain time, and we’re committed to it.

By now, you may have seen the old photos of students sitting at desks draped in sleeping bags in outdoor classrooms in winter during tuberculosis and flu outbreaks a century ago.

We’re preparing our kids for similar conditions in the 21st century — meaning my husband has ordered them waterproof rain pants from a commercial fishing company, and they’ll need a new wardrobe of base layers and fleeces and wicking socks and heavy-duty boots to stay warm and dry.

School dropoff and pickup are highly choreographed affairs, and my anxiety spiked as we approached the schools this morning, fearful we would make a mistake. Before we left the house, we took both kids’ temperatures and completed a health checklist. At school, arrival is at certain times, using assigned entrances and exits, with no lingering or chatting.

I placed a mask on 4-year-old Harvey and walked him to the gate, where a teacher introduced herself and held a thermometer to his forehead. Then he walked through alone, and waved goodbye. At 8-year-old Nate’s school, parents are not allowed out of the car, so Nate had to lug all of his first-day school supplies, and he made an ugly face at us as we drove off — evident even with his mask on.

Later in the day, the head of Nate’s school emailed us to say Nate was having a great day, having been cheered up by a first-day surprise: goats that were brought in to eat poison ivy on the school grounds.

We take all the precautions to keep our family and community healthy, and also so that school can stay open. I’d say that goats at school is as good an incentive as any to press on and stay vigilant.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.