The abject horror of back-to-school season

Published 6 Aug 2020, last modified 15 Sep 2020

Empty interior sunset view of skyway linking Olney and Ball buildings of UMass Lowell's North Campus.

It’s late summer here, time to think about school again. I finished my bachelor’s degree at long last in May; otherwise it would be about time to set up my personal calendar and start letting the folks at work know what times of week are best for reaching me between classes. If we hadn’t already decided long ago to homeschool through the early years, it would be time for us to prepare our child for her first days away at kindergarten. There were times in my youth when, for reasons related to my neurodivergence and the sometimes unforgiving expectations of the schools I attended, that anticipation of the new school year could make me feel physically unwell. As I have gained more autonomy in my life and grown into adulthood (I can hardly believe I’m nearly 30 years old), I have learned to cherish this back-to-school season as an annual moment of new plans, of relative calm with Halloween as the only major commercial holiday on the horizon, and of uncharacteristically gentle weather in New England. The appearance of back-to-school merchandise in stores, then, is an obnoxious reminder of misgivings about school as an institution, but also a harbinger of decent times and a source of cheap office supplies when it all goes on clearance.

This year, 2020, is, of course, different. This year the very idea of school as a place, of children crowding into classrooms for hours at a time—even if schools succeed in making them wear masks throughout the day—strikes fear into my heart.

Yes, I’m in Massachusetts, where COVID-19 deaths & cases have come down from their late April peak and settled into a relatively low statistical valley. And yes, we know that children under 10 are far less likely than other people to actually become ill with the disease. But in the US, where state lines exist more in theory than in the physical realm, a plague anywhere in the country means a potential plague everywhere else. We don’t really know yet with empirical certainty whether children under 10 are as unlikely to spread the disease, compared to adults, as they are to develop pearly obvious symptoms. And in places like the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, students, including many older than 10, have already started a new school year, leading to social media alarm over pictures of mostly maskless adolescents packed tightly into jammed school hallways, rushing to class as if this were the Before Times. If that’s how school looks here when it resumes in September, I do not expect that we will remain in this peaceful statistical valley of COVID-19 cases.

The reopening of American schools at a time when this disease is out of control in so many areas is a sort of vast, uncontrolled experiment. A lot of parents, back to working outside the house out of necessity, cannot supervise their children at home during the workday, and the fact is that, culturally, the American school is just as much (if not more) a place to put children during the business week when their parents are expected to focus on something else as it is an institution of training or learning. We do not know, as a market-driven society, how to have children around, participating in our lives all through the work week, and it seems that on a national level we’d rather experiment with putting our children back into these crowded institutions in the midst of a plague than with rearranging the dynamics of labor and the family unit to allow children to stay at home and learn in the home environment until all the metaphorical fires have been put out.

It was in early March, during the last spring break of my academic career (which I spent quietly at home) that a lot of US universities started abruptly moving all instruction online. My university eventually did the same. What was at first a temporary delay in returning to campus quickly became the rest of the semester. It was awkward as hell; generally, instructors who teach well in person do not have a universal nack for teaching their classes online, not could they be expected to have online-friendly curricula prepared without notice. But we all did this—the awkward videoconference class sessions, scanning exam papers with our phones to submit them, the bizarre Commencement ceremony video with long speeches from deans and pre-recorded well-wishes from assorted television personalities I mostly failed to recognize as I watched in my cap and gown amongst my family at home. We did it all with an understanding that we were operating within a social contract: “stay at home and flatten the curve.” The promise was that we were buying time to make a return to physical social spaces safe, to get things under control. And that pretty much happened here, in Massachusetts. We had an awful crisis in long-term care facilities, where chronic understaffing and inconsistent funding & oversight exacerbated the effects of a disease that is already devestating amongst elders, but overall the statewide effort to curb the virus, the closure of businesses & public places eventually combined with a loosely enforced mask mandate, had a noticeable impact on public health data. We are doing relatively okay here—for now.

But “relatively okay” does not mean “back to normal,” nor does it even mean we’ve reached the level of control in which I’d happily return to doing my office job in the actual office, whatever guarantees are made about face masks, reduced occupancy and improved airflow. When I realized, back in March, that I had already gone to class on campus for the last time without even knowing it, I told myself maybe I’d visit sometime in the fall, just to properly say goodbye. Now the university, surely cognizant of the budgetary risks of doing otherwise, has elected to reopen its campus for the fall semester, but I’d feel irresponsible setting foot in the area. Just the act of existing there as an uninvited human body seems wrong now.

When I go out for exercise these days, often the only person on the sidewalks or the local bike trail wearing a mask, and I see these groups of kids enjoying the last hurrah of summer before school resumes, I have to wonder if we’re about to undo all the painful work we did.

Note: As of 11 August 2020, in light of a slow but worrying upward trend in Massachusetts COVID-19 cases, my university has chosen to scale back the reopening of its campus, and will only be hosting a minimum of in-person lab and studio classes, and students who have demonstrated a particular need to be on campus; nearly all instruction will be remote. The public school district in my town is currently still planning to employ a “hybrid” approach of in-person and virtual classroom instruction.