“You can’t cry or they’ll think you are sick,” she whispered to her sister when the bus pulled up to the school. Seven-years-old Olivia was fortunate that her older sister Emma could sit with her. Students without siblings had to sit in their own row, by themselves to make sure they would be six feet apart. “I know you are sad” she tried to comfort her, as they waited for their names to be called. “but it is not your fault. You did not get sick You did not give it to her. Someone else must have.” Emma quietly blew her nose, quickly hid the tissue and slid her mask back into place.
“Emma, Olivia, your turn,” the bus driver’s voice rattled over the intercom. Since the outbreak social distancing had to be followed at all times. “Welcome back to school,” the secretary greeted them at the door by zapping their foreheads and squirting hand sanitizer at them before they could enter the building. “Straight to your classroom,” Mrs. Martin told them. “If you need breakfast, it will be right at your desks.”
“See, at least now you know you are healthy,” Olivia motioned to her sister with relief seeing that they had both passed the temperature check.
“See you later!” Emma squeezed Olivia’s hand as she turned toward her classroom. “And always keep your mask up, little sis!”
Staff members already patrolled the hallways with masks and face shields on as Olivia slowly moved from one marked X to the next. She saw her good friend Madison start to run towards her. Immediately she was stopped by a teacher. “No running! Stay on your mark until you are able to move on.” Olivia had worked from Madison’s house the previous two weeks when class was taught online. The two had become good friends, giggling, playing, and doing school work together in a worry-free place. At Madison’s house they could act, play and study together as they had always done before people had started to get sick. Now the strict observing looks of faculty kept Olivia from leaping forward to hug her friend as she would always do. Instead, she kept her gaze on the next marked X as she step by step traveled down the hallway. What seemed so normal at Madison’s house could now land them in the principal’s office. Olivia threw her friend a shy wave and moved into her classroom. She could not tell but wanted to believe that from behind her mask Madison had smiled back at her.
Despite the time off she had not forgotten the morning routine. Olivia sat at her desk, turned on her chromebook and filled in her lunch choices. Students almost seemed to be following the rules better than before. It was unusually quiet with so few kids in the room, no one talking and everyone staring at their screen, usually commotion and chatter ruled the room in the morning. However, things had changed with this smile-less society.
The bell rang and the principal read the announcements over the PA system. The class stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the principal welcomed Mr. Armstrong. He was the new teacher and would now replace Emma’s teacher, Mrs. Williams who had become sick in September. Last week her students and their parents had been informed about her tragic passing. The news had hit the small but tightly knit community hard. Mrs. Williams had been younger and had had no underlying health conditions. While around one quarter to one third of school teachers nationwide were in the higher risk category due to age or preexisting conditions, Mrs. Williams had never been considered high risk, at all. The virus was an unpredictable beast. The news had caused tension at home, as well. Olivia’s mother was adamant not to send the girls back to school. Yet, neither parent could work from home and help teach the children. Furthermore, Emma had been in the room that had been exposed to Covid-19 where several kids had gotten sick, and other families no longer wanted to have Emma or Olivia work at their house. Emma didn’t want to return to school, either. She knew every student would be blaming each other for causing their teacher to get sick. But she did not want to cause more fighting at home either, with her own parents being at odds over the appropriate response to the pandemic. So she had remained quiet and kept to herself in her room. Yet Olivia knew that Emma was scared and hurting, always wondering if she might have been the one to blame.
The announcements were short. There was no news about after school sports or clubs anymore. Instead, an online fundraiser for Mrs. William’s family was announced and that the school counselor was available to talk to students. As Olivia looked around the room, she noticed that Max was not there. Was he sick or did he switch to learning from home? Olivia knew he had gotten sick over two weeks ago when he showed up to school with a fever and failed the temperature check. He had been crying as he had to stand at the other side of the building and wait for a parent to pick him up. As he waited and Olivia looked over, he asked the principal if he was going to die with tears flowing down his little face. The next day, the school was closed for two weeks as other students had become ill, as well. Olivia was scared that she would get sick too. She checked the tightness of her mask but as she did so, the teacher told her to leave it alone and not to play with it.
It was time for the morning meeting. The teacher turned on the Smartboard and suddenly the students who were at home popped up on the screen one by one. The class erupted in waves and giant, “hellos!” It was great to see Preston again! Even if just on screen! He was having a good time at home as his little brother continuously photo bombed the screenshot. The teacher explained the daily assignments and the kids at home signed off again.
During math class, Olivia worked on an activity involving fractions, however, she was distracted as she noticed that Max had never signed in. Additionally, the assignment was really hard. Maybe it was good she was at school today. Doing the problems on the computer screen without having the fraction blocks to visualize it was even harder. Students could not share items in the room anymore. She raised her hand to ask the teacher for help with problem #5. The teacher stayed at the front of the room and worked through the problem step by step on the projector screen. Other kids were also struggling, so they watched and called out problem numbers they wanted help with. The teacher patiently worked through each problem with the class, and by the end it was starting to make more sense. For students that had issues and were using scratch paper to solve the problem, they could bring their paper up to a document camera for the teacher to look at while still staying six feet away. It worked, but it did take longer to get help.
After math was over, it was time for bathroom break and the class lined up to head down hallway. Somehow the small group still took up the same space as the regular classes had done in the past and the bathroom breaks took even longer! When everyone was finished with the bathroom, the group headed outside for a mask break. They lined up six feet apart in the field and played Red Light, Green Light before putting their masks back on and returning to the classroom. Olivia settled back into her desk. Her teacher read a chapter of their class read-aloud before lunch. From her seat in the back of the room, it was hard to see the pictures displayed up front and the muffled sound of the teacher didn't help either. Apparently, the images from the book added to the story because students at the front were laughing at something she could not see. It certainly was easier when they all sat on the rug together.
Soon the lunch cart came squeaking its way down the hallway and told her that half the day at school was over. The class lined up in the hallway to wash up, then returned to their desks, each grabbing a tray on their way back into the room. She missed the cafeteria: sitting with her friends, having some choice in what food she took. She wrinkled her nose at the smell of lima beans and wished she could have taken extra carrots instead. When everyone was done eating, they put their masks back on and lined up again in the hallway to go out for recess.
Recess used to be the best part of the school day. She could see her friends from various classes, race around the playground, and jump between the swings and the slides. Now only one class at a time was allowed outside and they couldn’t play the way they used to. Basketballs, soccer balls, footballs, and jump ropes weren’t allowed and yellow tape stretched across the slides and swings. It was nice to take off her mask and feel the sun on her face, but recess wasn’t as fun as it used to be. She pulled a tennis ball out of her jacket pocket and bounced it against the school’s wall. Most kids just wandered around the field or did socially distanced running races as they waited until it was time to go back in again.
The rest of the day was a blur. The science experiment at the front of the room was hard to see from the back and Olivia again felt left out. Her desk also started to be constraining as she was in it most of the day. The music teacher zoomed into the classroom via the screen and had students drum on their desks. Singing was not allowed. They could only hit the desk and clap to the rhythm. At least it was good to wiggle a bit.
On the bus ride home Olivia and Emma were quiet and stared out the window. Olivia was wondering about Max, if he was okay or if he was maybe in the hospital. Emma couldn't take her mind off of Mrs. Williams. Both wondered for how long school would be full of this awkwardness, anxiety and uncertainty. They also wondered who would get sick next.
“Emma, Olivia, your turn!” the bus driver’s voice blared over the intercom again. Every student or pair of siblings had to get off the bus in intervals just as they did in the morning. At home, Emma raced to her room and shut the door. Olivia waited for her mom to get home from work and raced to hug her. The warm embrace and a welcoming face that showed a smile was comforting and reassuring. She had had to hold back hugs and signs of affection all day long. It did not come naturally to her. At school she felt like a bird whose wings were cut, willing and ready to fly but unable to do so. “Where is Emma?” her mom asked.” The sobbing sounds from the upstairs bedroom answered her question. They ran upstairs. “What is wrong Emma?” Mom asked.
“I don’t want to go to school anymore!” Emma finally broke. “I miss Mrs. Williams and all of my friends. I hate the stupid routines and being chained to my desk! I feel all alone all the time! I just want to stay home! Why can’t I stay home? I don’t want to die!” Olivia and her mother looked at each other, then tears ran down their cheeks as well.
“We will find a way to make it work,” Mom reassured her kids as they held each other in their arms. However, Olivia’s mother didn’t know how she would make it work, but she was going to see what she could do to help her daughters.
Covid-19 have caused teachers, parents, and students to worry about the restarting of schools in America as the numbers continue to rise. For many families, there seems to be no solution. No matter if your child or children go to school or stay home for their education, speak with them often and see how they are doing. Keep communication happening so you know if any issues are developing and reach out to your school's counselor, social worker, or a local therapist if warranted. Students that attend school may be experiencing a world that is far different than the world that they know and unwanted stress and anxiety may arise or the feeling of isolation as they cannot play and socialize as they did in the past. Students this year may also be dealing with the concept of death in a way that no one anticipates. There are numerous resources out there to help children navigate through these tough waters. Students attending school through distance learning may also feel isolated, so it is important that you speak with them about their feelings and how they are doing as we navigate through a pandemic.