Right before the pandemic hit, my two kids were beginning their last quarters of second grade and seventh grade. We had just moved to a new town at the beginning of the school year, and I finally felt as though my kids were adjusting, making friends, and acclimating to their new schools.
One of the reasons we had moved to this town (it’s actually the one I grew up in), is that I wanted to offer my kids a more rigorous and challenging learning environment. Both of my kids are nerdy and brainy, and my middle school son had been bored and restless for years in math and science classes where he already knew the material and needed an extra challenge.
I was never one to emphasize grades or academic achievement, but I wanted my kids to be appropriately challenged and excited by learning. And it seemed to be working. My middle schooler was already talking about the cool classes and electives he had signed up for the following school year. Our town also has plenty of free enrichment activities for kids and teens, and both of my kids were starting to fill their schedule with cooking classes, video making classes, and play rehearsals.
Things seemed to be going great … and then the pandemic hit.
As was the case for almost everyone I know, distance learning was a complete and total dumpster fire for my children last spring. Both my husband and I were working full time from home while our two kids attempted to do “school.” For them, most of school was a series of assignments they were asked to complete with very little guidance. Their teachers weren’t Zooming much, and neither of my children felt comfortable with Zoom anyway. (I’m fully aware that teachers were doing their best given the abrupt change to online learning and I don’t blame them in the least!)
My normally-excelling kids were floundering. For the first time ever, my middle schooler was having trouble turning in his work. And my second grader … well, his situation was a five-alarm disaster. He basically spent all day on his iPad watching videos (hello? his parents needed to earn a living) and then when we finally had time to help him complete his assignments, he would literally scream and cry.
This is a child who is usually happy to do his work at school, does well, and is generally well behaved. He was crumbling. I remember him saying, “I just wish I could see my teacher’s face. That would motivate me to do my work.”
Clearly, the emotional connection to school was what he was craving, and that was making virtual school feel so impossible and depressing.
Basically, having everything you have known and loved about school being pulled right from under you is an intense and traumatizing experience. Not only that, but we live in the NYC metropolitan area, which was the epicenter of the pandemic this past spring. Sirens would go wailing past our house, all the time, as our kids were trying to complete their work. The stress, tension, and fear in the air were palpable, and I’m sure they picked up on that.
All of this meant that very little academic progress happened for my children last spring. I was fine with that, because I understood that when there is a freaking global health crisis, you can’t expect kids to do school in any sort of normal way. Academic progress can wait. Their mental health and wellbeing is what’s most important.
However, it didn’t really feel like I could address my kids’ mental health until this summer. Soon after school ended and the stress of that was removed from my kids’ lives, we all began to breathe a little better. Yes, the world was still a dumpster fire, but at least we could get our bearings.
While this past summer hasn’t been the most fun or exciting summer ever – we are still taking COVID-19 safety seriously and not socializing with others or doing anything riskier than hanging out at empty parks – I have started to see the spark and light return to my children’s faces.
They are basically doing whatever the hell they want this summer. They are still spending way too much time on screens. But they are playing online video games with their friends, they are pulling out old toys to play with, they’ve made a few silly short films, and they are spending a lot of time joking around with each other, and with us.
After a spring of pure hell, my kids seem back to their normal-ish selves—and I want to do my damndest to hold onto that. Seeing how much happier they are now makes me realize just how hard and traumatizing it was for them this past spring.
Now, as the school year gears up again, I’m realizing that my top priority should be to keep their mental health in check. Sure, I want to make sure they don’t lose their academic progress. Sure, I want them to learn new things, if possible. I want them to feel as though they are accomplishing something and that they continue to be challenged.
But if none of those things happen, so be it. My top priority is that they are well and happy.
My kids will start the school year remotely. Thankfully, there will be a lot more live elements in place – and my kids have had ample time to get comfortable with Zoom over these past six months – so I am hopeful that school will generally be a more positive experience for them.
But if their days are riddled with tech issues (they will be!) or if they cry through assignments (equally likely!), I am going to do a better job helping them through their tough emotions. This year, we at least are prepared for what’s to come, and both my husband and I have rearranged our schedules so that we can be available more during their school days for academic support – but most importantly, emotional support.
This school year is going to be about checking in with our kids emotionally. It’s going to be about letting school work slide when overwhelm is too great. It’s going to be about checking in constantly with their teachers about their socio-emotional well being. It’s going to be about finding new ways to stay connected with friends and loved ones.
It’s going to be about learning how to persevere through hardships and build resilience. It’s going to be about being more mindful about our mental health, and asking for help when we need it.
And as for academic vigor? Meh. That can wait for another year. In all honesty, I don’t care if my kids learn a damn thing this school year. I will not allow my kids to suffer this year the way they did last spring. This year, my kids’ mental health is my priority, and I’m letting the rest of it go.