VIRUS JOURNAL: Thanks to COVID, an “anti-first day” of school | KSEE24

MAPLEWOOD, NJ (AP) – Three days before the first day of school, a text hit the nail on the head: The babysitter had exposed our three children to COVID. Robotically, I started to look at what the next few days would be like. Fill up with Tylenol and check the temperature. Hoping we’ll have another peak-free day. Tests on the fifth day. I wonder if every sniffle is a symptom.

I know this routine well now. Pandemic parenthood created it. The lack of vaccines for the youngest forces us to maintain it. I was looking at another pandemic pivot, and this one felt different. I’m sick of pivoting. I’m tired of figuring out how to make everyone resilient. And I had to say something out loud to these three.

It wasn’t just the first day. They would miss the first two weeks of school.

On my social media feeds, images from the first day keep arriving. Children in freshly ironed pleated uniforms with crisp white shirts. College students posing in trendy new outfits. Fresh haircuts. New glittering backpacks. Avengers lunch boxes. Unscuffed sneakers and smiles.

Our school shoes are still in their boxes. Our backpacks are packed, but there’s nowhere to go. Our uniforms always have their labels.

We are NOT smiling.

Text messages from football and softball teams share dozens of games we haven’t been able to play. We greet friends who come home from school through the windows. I imagine children sitting at desks protected from COVID, writing essays “about me” and drawing self-portraits. Will they all climb the wall and will our children miss? Will they be looking at this wall all year round, remembering when the world started to fall when they were stuck in the summer?

Three days go by, and we still haven’t heard from a professor. “Don’t worry,” the office told me. “Not much is happening during the first few days of school anyway.”

So many things, however.

When our world stopped in March 2020, when the daycare and school closed and we were parents and worked in parallel, there was adrenaline rush. One stop was different and scary, but we were there together. This time, we stopped alone. And we are alone.

Children are experienced pandemic children. They know that the routines that make up their life can evaporate in an instant. And as the days go by, with no camp or school or friends, they start to believe it’s happening again. Their grief is visible.

It shows in Maddie’s screams. The screams that interrupt an otherwise unfolding puzzle, or when she decides a hill is too much for her Frozen bike and her 3-year-old body. When we have mac and cheese instead of peanut butter and jelly, even though she asked for mac and cheese. When she wants chalk on the driveway but can’t find the pink chalk. She asks several times a day what day it is. She draws on the walls again, like last March. “I’m sick today,” she tells me, except that she isn’t. She carries her backpack to breakfast. And then she screams again, and this time I don’t know why.

It shows that Amelia has a brave face. Maddie is working on writing her name and her 8-year-old sister volunteers to help. Amelia cut out letters she can draw on and lay them out on the floor. She claims to be the president of her own iteration of the Baby-Sitters Club and is determined to take art classes with her little sister. Maddie screams and runs away. “Maddie isn’t listening to me,” she complains, then moped. The only smile I can get from her is when I share a text from another mother with information that two friends are in her class.

Rylan is the untouchable, rarely affected by anything. He, more than the other two, was ready for school. He worked for weeks to finish his three summer reading books, the hardest books he had ever read. He spent four hours editing his essay before day one. He remains unread and his anxiety grows. He wants a good desk, one in the center of the classroom. Will he be stuck in the back? What day is the gym? Who is in his class? He goes down hours after bedtime, complaining that his eyes are blinking and he can’t sleep. We breathe. It doesn’t help. – Mom, he said in a low voice. “What if Maddie has COVID and we have to be home for another 14 days?” “

I have no response.

On day 12, we have had enough. There will be no traditional first day of school for us this year. Reality has set in and we accept it. Almost.

I gather the kids and sit them on the porch steps, the same steps where we usually take our first photo of the first day of school every year. We’re taking an anti-first day of school photo, because that’s our experience this year. They complain, as they usually do.

“Show me how it feels to be stuck at home,” I coax her. They laugh, for a second. Then they make faces of monsters. They frown. I think someday when they flip through family photos, they’ll tell the story of missing the first two weeks of school and how mom made them take a stupid photo anyway.

Sometimes the best way to be resilient is to not be. So we sit down with our anger and wait for the day to pass or the end of quarantine. It doesn’t matter which one comes first.


Virus Diary, an occasional feature, presents the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of Associated Press reporters around the world. Noreen Gillespie is AP’s Associate Editor-in-Chief for US News. Follow her on Twitter at

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