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The Earnheardts | Back to school, COVID-style

Try finding the start and dismissal times for a school on its website and you’ll get lost in a sea of forms and calendars. When you have four kids, you have to wing it sometimes. Maybe guessing at a pickup time isn’t the best parenting move, especially when your guess is off by an hour. 
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The Earnheardts: Clockwise from top: Mary Beth, Katie, Sadie, Adam, Ozzie, and Ella.

Two weeks ago the Earnheardts marked an important event. 

It was a day I’d anticipated since the mid-March shutdowns sent our lives into a series of unfortunate events. On Sept. 8, 2020, three of our four kids went back to physical, in-person school. 

Like many families in the Valley, our kids normally head back sometime in late-August, and because of this we usually know a lot of details by mid-summer. This year was different. We waited until the end of July for our district to release its back to school plans.

The most important piece of information for Adam and me was when the blessed day would arrive. It was late this year, but just knowing it was coming filled us with hope.

Aside from that, it was all about the modes of delivery. While we waited, we faced competing anxieties. In one corner was fear about keeping our kids safe in a physical space that is not typically known to be well-sanitized. In the other corner were flashbacks to having all the kids at home trying to learn while Adam and I both worked and played homeschool custodians all day. 

Every time the two opponents were in the ring, it ended in a draw.

The officials at Liberty Local Schools must have reached the same conclusion because our school opted for something in the middle. Families in our district were allowed to pick between blended learning (two-day-a-week in school with online classes on the other three days) and remote learning (virtual classes held online).

We allowed our kids to decide what they wanted to do.

I must admit, if Oz had picked remote learning, we might have bribed him to take the blended option. The amount of attention a 7-year-old boy requires is roughly equal to a 40-hour workweek. Having a teacher in a face-to-face classroom is an important resource for working parents like us. 

Thankfully no bribe was necessary because, as it turns out, Oz was getting sick of us, too. He was eager to see his friends and get out of the house. Sadie and Katie also selected blended learning and were excited to reconnect with old friends.

Our only hold out is Ella. She’s taking all her classes from the comfort of her bedroom. She’s also a 4.0 student with 9 college credits to her name. We feel pretty confident that she’ll manage online learning better than many kids her age. Also, Adam and I never got grades that good in high school. We’re pretty sure she’s smarter than us (and hopefully she’ll never read this last sentence).

Once we knew the plan, we tried to figure out how to accomplish our regular back to school routine. First was shopping.

It was a light year for us as most of the usual supplies were not needed. Also, with so much time still at home and kids who grow like weeds, we opted out of traditional school clothes shopping. Each Earnheardt who would be regularly seen in public got a new, “first-day” outfit, complete with sneakers and book bag. 

Online school clothes shopping wasn’t great, but after a few returns and a late delivery on a Muppet bookbag, we had what we needed to get started. 

Because we both work, Adam and I split most of the parental duties, I am in charge of clothes, but Adam is our go-to guy for classroom supplies (e.g., pencils, paper, etc.). He typically enjoys this task, scouring the stores all summer for good deals on crayons, binders, and other necessities. But, things were messed up this year. Not knowing if the kids would actually go back, Adam waited to shop until the first day of school. He hit the stores right after he dropped the kids off and stressed all day because he felt like they were unprepared.

Turns out, he should have waited longer. When the kids got home after day one, they looked at his haul from Target and Wal-Mart and said, “Our teachers told us we don’t need that stuff now.” This wasn’t entirely true (the teachers did need some supplies), but it emphasized how strange it’s been to go back to school during the shifting expectations of a pandemic.

We’re about two weeks in, but we’re still trying to figure stuff out. For example, here are things I’ve heard just in the last few days:

  • “Is Oz’s class meeting on Zoom or Google? And, tell him he doesn’t have to wear a mask when he’s online.”

  • “I’m the only one who buys my lunch at school. Can I pack now? If you don’t let me pack, it means you want me to get the Coronavirus.”

  • “Ella’s teacher is ghosting her. Either that or he’s just annoyed by the 14 emails Dad sent him yesterday.”

  • (Via text) “Dad, where are you? School was done at 2:20. The bus driver never left me hanging like this.”

Everyone is trying their best to figure this out, but we’re all getting deluged with too much information. Try finding the start and dismissal times for a school on its website and you’ll get lost in a sea of forms and calendars. When you have four kids, you have to wing it sometimes. Maybe guessing at a pickup time isn’t the best parenting move, especially when your guess is off by an hour. 

Still, when all is said and done, it’s going better than we expected. 

Ozzie got Mrs. Collins for second grade, which makes her the only elementary school teacher at Liberty to educate all our kids. We’ve decided to call this earning the full EKSO. We’re glad she’s always up for our repeat business (even though we warned her about Ozzie). 

That’s the thing about a school, it’s only as good as its teachers and we have an abundance of talent in Liberty. I’m sure this has been tough on them, but from what we’ve seen, they’ve been willing to work with everyone to help make the best of this crazy, COVID situation.

The kids who have physically returned to school have been assigned to small classes. Between the rotating of students and some choosing to learn online, the classes are set up for personalized instruction. Kate, who is easily distracted by the buzz of a large class, loves this added attention. 

Most importantly, the kids love reconnecting with their friends. Being a young person during the pandemic has changed them and they’re eager to share stories with people who don’t live at the same address. 

We’re happy that school has restarted, but we’re also looking ahead and hoping for even better days. However, the next date Adam and I are looking forward to can’t be marked on a calendar. 

At least, not yet. 

It’s a day sometime in the future when things get back to normal. It’s the day when we know our kids will be safe from COVID and free to go back to their schools. It’s the day when we all return to our busy lives. And, most importantly, it’s the day when Adam and I can take a Friday off from work and stay home while our kids are all at school.

Mary Beth Earnheardt is a professor in the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University where she advises student media. You can follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo




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