Maria Panaritis The Philadelphia Inquirer
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Columnist Maria Panaritis shares this touching piece about life during the pandemic and what she experienced this week as a parent sending her own two kids back to school for the first time.
In the silence of an empty house are the broken pieces of a pandemic year. Technically-still-intact lives for the lucky among us. But marred by the shrapnel of survival.
All of this was laid bare Monday, then Tuesday, then Wednesday of this week. The first and then the second and then the third consecutive day of elementary school — a sequence unheard of for more than a year until this week, when mine and several other suburban Philadelphia school districts reopened for full-day, five-day-a-week instruction.
These youngest of public school children were thrilled. Many spent the weekend bouncing off the very walls that had confined them at home since the first coronavirus school shutdown order took effect Friday the 13th, 2020. They came home from the real deal just as excited.
For 53 weeks they and the rest of us have lived in an unnatural state of fear. Our children stayed away from their little friends as the race for a COVID-19 vaccine throttled forward. They huddled for hours on end near Mommy or Daddy working in the kitchen, or had Grandma come by, or someone else if they were lucky. No summer camps. No vacations. Our lives framed by the fear of transmitting a coronavirus that would kill more than a half million Americans over the course of 12 months.
In the fall, another social mutation took hold: Children began staring at tiny computer screens that held even tinier boxes of faces of kids they would meet only as virtual classmates. Some eventually got to go to school for a couple of days a week at six feet apart from each other. Then came this week. At least for some of us. Even as millions of Pennsylvanians still await vaccination shots, the clock for some of our public school kids finally turned back to the way things were.
Or, at least, it tried to.
What a surprise to be thrust by full elementary school reopenings into The Old Life, even as the New Life remained masked and tentative and distorted by the fear of human touch. Kids — in my case 6 and 8 years old — disappeared into school buildings Monday morning with teachers pumping pompoms to celebratory music. They headed to classrooms filled with CDC-sanctioned 3-foot-apart desks. Plastic shields. Stolen smiles and playful whispers as teachers turned their backs.
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But reentry for us caregivers was a shock of a different kind.
For 372 days in a row, pure focus and concentration had been lacking inside our crowded homes. On Monday, silence roared into the void. It was disorienting. Empty was the one-room-schoolhouse dining room next to the kitchen where grown-up work had miraculously been done, day in and day out, while struggles over second-grade and first-grade math took place a few feet away. Gone, suddenly, was the fever-pitched multitasking and battlefield reflexes of pandemic parenthood.
One friend, when his own children first returned to school earlier this year, told me he could hear the water rumbling through radiator pipes on Day One.
It was dizzying when my own day came this week after morning drop-off. I sat at my same kitchen-table spot in front of the same MacBook Air keyboard. And yet, I could do nothing but drop my head into my hands and squeeze.
Where am I? Who am I? What is this place? What have I just been through? Is this really happening? Will my kids be OK? Will their teachers? They're going to shut us down again, right? I haven't been vaccinated — that's OK; I'll be OK. We'll all be OK. We have to be OK, because there is no other way.
All of us are changed in ways we probably don't entirely understand one year after the coronavirus blanketed our lives. COVID-19 took loved ones — there is nothing worse. It also took livelihoods. It took children away from the safe space of their schools. It filled some hurting people with empathy and other hurting people with rage.
But it also stole intangibles. For children, that included the sense of playful abandon that is such a part of being a young kid. For parents of youngsters who were not in private schools, it stole classroom instruction and child care for months on end. For educators who struggled to eventually reach those kids through digital devices if any devices at all, it was just as grueling. For many of us caring for young kids, the last year has been like pushing through a hailstorm, on foot, every single day.
Which is why full reopenings were startling. They revealed hope. But also: wreckage.
"Mommy," the 8-year-old announced at dinner after Day Two. "Let me show you how my friends and I high-fived today without touching each other's hands."
He was smiling while hopping away from a bowl of pasta to mime the gesture.
"Mommy," retorted the 6-year-old, who refused to be outshone, "we were doing fist bumps without touching."
The rain is falling as I write these final sentences. I hear the droplets pattering against my kitchen window.
It is quiet. And loud. And unsettling. And perhaps one day when the traumatic drumbeat of this pandemic is truly a distant memory, I will again appreciate such pitter-patter in a quiet house as nothing more than beautiful. But not just yet. ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.