a white teenage boy sits in a facemask
(Photo/pixabay.com-Alexandra Koch)

The new normal is not normal, but the kids seem all right

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In some ways, the start of school this fall and the preparation leading up to it were similar to most other years: We did some school shopping, cleaned out last year’s backpacks. The kids ordered new books. I filled out the usual school and work permit forms and scheduled their annual doctors’ appointments.

But in all other ways, the start of this school year was unlike any other.

Though most of her classes would be online and campus life would be considerably restricted, our daughter decided to head back to college. Students were told to pack light and bring one suitcase in the event that they had to leave suddenly.

We were anxious about her flying, especially with a layover and all the schlepping involved in getting to campus. Multiple masks for the long trip, a pair of medical safety goggles, two packages of wipes and some small hand-sanitizer bottles took up much of the space in her backpack. We dropped her off at the airport, and though I will miss her dearly, I hoped I wouldn’t see her again until mid-November.

Our son would be starting his senior year of high school from home. This would be a big year for him — a heavy course load plus all the work involved in applying to colleges. We wanted to do what we could to support him. We reconfigured a small guest room to give him more space and bought him a standing desk so he’d have an option from sitting all day.

And just as the kids were getting a handle on their new back-to-school normal, we had the raging fires that brought days of unhealthy air, smoke-filled skies and ash that fell on us as we walked to the store to get new notebooks and pencil cases. A week or so into the semester, when the air quality became too toxic for us to be outside, it was hard for me to see our son even more cooped up at home.

Helping the kids get ready for school in the fall is usually an exciting time for me. But this year, I felt only loss — the loss of all they would be missing.

And yet, as I write this, both kids have been back in school for about a month and are, for the most part, doing OK.

Our daughter made it safely to campus, took her Covid test, retrieved her boxes from storage and carried each one up two flights of stairs to her room. I had originally planned to go with her and help, but she managed it quite well by herself. And though she’d much rather be attending class in person than Zooming from her dorm room, she’s thrilled to be back on campus and is immersed in her studies.

When we last spoke, she told me she has accepted the situation for what it is.

Staying connected to her friends and knowing she’s not alone has helped. Appreciating all she has in her life, she also told me, helps her as well.

Similar to his sister, our son shared with me during a walk the other day that while things are not ideal right now, he’s not dwelling on what he can’t change. He’s making the best of it.

If schools remain closed this term, he won’t be able to take the ACT test that he’s been studying for since his junior year. He’s super busy, though, and hasn’t had much time to think about it. I know senior year is stressful. I’m proud of the way he’s coping.

Many parents I talk to are like me: anxious about Covid and climate change and worried about the effect on our kids’ social, emotional, academic and physical health.

And yet, most young adults I know, including my own kids, have shown a surprising amount of resiliency.

I’m inspired by their ability to pivot, change course midstream and deal with such uncertainty and adversity. It’s definitely not a normal school year, but maybe it’s not a total loss, either.

Julie Levine

Julie Levine is a writer who lives in San Francisco.