The bell rings.

Break open the seal of your packet. This exam is timed. Please keep an eye on the clock. The clock is broken? Fashion yourself a sundial. Fill in the circles thoroughly and completely but make sure they are also blank. Remain seated and standing at the same time. Good luck.

Welcome to a very bizarre and very real world where up is down. Welcome to the endless summer. Over the past several months, parents have had to make some whiplash-inducing decisions. Never in my life would I have imagined having to decide whether to send my kids back to school because of a pandemic. I have always wanted my children to go to public school. You would be hard pressed to find a bigger cheerleader of public schools than me. Out of every piece of parenting I have relished in the past 16 years, I am lucky to say that school has been one of my favorites. Now I am asking myself, “Do I send my kids to school, or do I keep them home?” I can hardly wrap my mind around it.

In March, I was sure we would be back on campus in May. I was certain we would hold ceremonies and celebrate one another at the end of the year. I was certain we would have prom and a typical graduation where seniors walk the stage to accept diplomas. Then April came. I resigned myself to the fact that we would not finish out the spring semester in person. It was a hard pill to swallow, and it felt unbelievable and sad. That Friday before spring break, when we all walked away for what we thought would be a week, turned into the endless summer.

Usually our summers are pretty busy. My eldest works at summer camp, and my youngest is a very busy pet sitter for vacationing neighbors. Not this endless summer. This summer there was no camp. This summer everyone stayed home with their pets and, in many cases, adopted more. My family stayed home (literally within our four walls and fenced yard, perhaps the front sidewalk and an occasional drive) for over 100 days. Around the 50-day mark, I eased up on screen time restrictions. Around the 70-day mark, I pushed back bedtime and also breakfast. By the 100th day, I gave in and ordered Capri Sun in our curbside order. Meanwhile new pajama pants for the entire family were arriving to our doorstep in frequent deliveries.

It got hot. I started a garden. We dyed our hair. We played board games. We were chefs. We bought chickens. We built a coop. We made surprises for neighbors and left them on doorsteps. We took road trips. We drew with chalk. We made balloon animals. We watched the entire TV series Lost in under two weeks. We read. We set up a Zoom room in our master bathroom. We slept. We woke up. Rinse and repeat throughout the endless summer. I lost track of days and weeks as I fell into the pandemic loop. Then the question of when, why, if, what, and how for the new school year started to trickle into my newsfeed and inbox.

“This is crisis schooling during a pandemic, and none of us have played this game before.”

Is it safe to send kids back to school? Is it safe for teachers and staff? What about state and federal funding? What about the mental health of our children? What about social and emotional development? What about socioeconomically disadvantaged students? What about title 1 schools? What about equity? What about accessibility? What about working parents? What about third shift workers who usually sleep while their kids are at school? What about social life? What about senior year? What about getting back to normal? Every time I thought I had the perfect answer I found a hole. I attended many virtual meetings and town halls. I organized committees and searched for options. I wrote emails and made phone calls. I tried hard to find the right answer only to discover that there is no right answer. This is not the world as we know it. This is not school as we know it. This is crisis schooling during a pandemic, and none of us have played this game before.

Districts across the state will start school online for three weeks. After that, many families will either send their kids to school or attend virtual learning at home. And this decision needs to be made soon. Parents are looking into a broken crystal ball trying to make the very best decisions for their students and families. This pandemic doesn’t play by our rules. It doesn’t let us know what is going to happen next. Each family is faced with a headache full of unanswered questions and by carefully weighing each option they make a choice. None of the options make sense. Time is ticking by, and we have to pencil in our best answer knowing that it may look different from our neighbor’s.

The parent shame game is unfortunately a very familiar one. Bottle feeding verses breast feeding, stay-at-home verses working parent, preschool or playtime, sugar, potty training, bedtimes, diet, car seats, and everything from pacifiers to nicknames seem to be up for debate. Sadly, the parent shame game has adopted a new battleground, in-person school or distance learning. I learned early on that what works for one child may not work for another.

I remember how easy it was to potty train my eldest. When she was 18 months old, I simply told her, “Hey, I am not going to buy any more diapers.” It was that easy. She didn’t have one accident. I remember thinking how ridiculously difficult some parent friends were making it for themselves. I remember looking at them in disbelief as they bribed with gummy bears or described how much they shelled out for pull-ups. I judged them. Then my youngest daughter was born. I gave her the same line. She shook her head and then proceeded to have an accident five minutes later. Then she had an accident in the car seat, then at Costco … in the cart. Every day for over a year, I did a load of sheets in the morning wondering what I was doing wrong. That was one of my first lessons of motherhood. These precious indescribable wonders are not one size fits all and neither are families.

We need to go into this next chapter of decision-making in the time of COVID-19 with grace for our neighbors. We need to understand what may be easy for us, may be impossible for others.

As you sit down with families to make back to school decisions, make room for a teachable moment on the subject of grace. Remind them about the people who have worked hard to make this school year happen. Remind them about their teachers who have families of their own. Remind them about school staff who showed up on campus in masks and gloves over the summer to hand out laptops for distance learning. Remind them about their principals who poured over numbers and made some hard phone calls. Remind them about their school board who must carry the weight of big decisions during a difficult time. Remind them about the administrators who attended hours of professional development training so they can better connect with students online. Remind them about their PTAs who are scrambling to meet the needs of their school communities without being on campus.

I speak often about how very different this world is from the world we all grew up in. The world of pagers and pay phones seems so very far away now. We have had to adapt while raising our children. We have all had to invent new rulebooks on growing up because this world was not even fathomable just a few decades ago. We have adapted, and we will adapt again. We will make some rules that work and some that need to be rewritten. As we fizzle into a new season of endless summer, we need to give ourselves grace to do that.

The bell rings.

Pencils down. Please hand your packet to the front of the classroom. Since the scoring rubric is different for each of you, no grades will be given. You have all earned endless grace for the endless summer.

Carolyn Brown

Carolyn Brown

Carolyn Jennings Brown has been serving public schools in the state of Texas for nearly two decades. She has a unique perspective that spans from being the daughter of an educator to a student, teacher, and parent. Today, Carolyn travels the state sharing her anti-bullying/pro-kindness workshop. She is an honorary lifetime member of Texas PTA and a recipient of the National PTA Lifetime Achievement Award. Carolyn lives in Austin with her husband and their two daughters.