Late August should be a time of melancholy for the waning days of summer, mixed with excitement for the new and unknown. Kids fret over which outfit will best express their new selves. Teachers write names on cubbies, hang posters, and prepare lessons. Parents brace for the day when they send their kids off on the bus, free, finally, from having to organize what their children do every minute of every hour.
These small, seemingly invisible rituals mark meaning and time. Adults vividly recall their own back-to-school shopping trips, the smell of new notebooks and fresh pencils, the cachet of a nontattered backpack. These traditions regain importance when we have kids. For a short time, we are architects of our children’s memories, and rituals are our signposts: “This moment matters.”
This year, of course, looks nothing like most years. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic means many schools will not open for in-person learning. For millions of families, there will be no familiar demarcation, no moment when the kids leave, entrusted to the care of others for much of the day. “I will miss the sense of before and after, that line you cross into when you go back to a real routine,” says Jenny Rosenstrach, a mother of two in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and the author of a cookbook that celebrates rituals. She even finds herself longing for traditions she used to dread, such as back-to-school shopping for clothes and supplies.
Instead of picking out lunch boxes and colored pens, parents are scrambling to invent new routines to cope with ever-changing school plans. We are creating socially distanced school activities and racing to form or join learning pods. We are rearranging our homes for remote learning and reconfiguring our careers, if we still have them, to try to make it work. Come September, our to-do lists won’t shrink, as they might when the architecture of fall schedules normally kicks in, but grow into an endless catalog of unknowns. (Item 5: Make sure they learn what they are meant to learn in fourth grade, whatever that is.)
Elsa Lee, a former pediatrician in Boise, Idaho, would typically spend August shopping for backpacks and clothes, trekking, along with much of America, to Staples. Her kids, 13 and 15, would be gearing up for marching band, tennis, and coding, excited to see friends and meet new teachers. But when the district shifted to an all-virtual opening, she had no idea what the kids’ school days would look like. Would they even take notes? “It feels like we live in a pretend world,” she says. Cara Natterson, a pediatrician and an author, wrote about wondering what supplies her kids actually need for remote learning in a recent newsletter: “We stood in the binder aisle for another five minutes trying to figure out the mechanics of ping-ponging between online and in-person school; we did it again when we hit the highlighter aisle.”
What we would give to be buying a backpack to carry things away, to have endless sports to schedule, to labor though a trip to the mall, to walk down aisles that are filled not with masks and sanitizer but just clothes. Who would have imagined pining for a college-shopping experience at Bed Bath and Beyond that wasn’t drive-through, but simply getting lost in the cavernous aisles?
Even though it feels strange to long for the laborious tedium of old fall routines, it’s perfectly natural to find comfort there. Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, studies rituals and told me that even though some traditions have been lost, holding on to others—or creating new ones—is crucial for our well-being. Her research, with Michael Norton, another HBS professor, shows that rituals help people recover more quickly when facing loss or grief—even when they don’t believe in the importance of them. They call for a pause, a reflection. They allow us to process.
Some parents tried to counter this summer’s constantly changing goalposts by manufacturing predictability and creating routines. Katherine Bourassa, a mother of five in Fairfax, Virginia, bought desks and shelves to convert her dining room into a classroom. Unlike in the spring, when each of her children worked or went to school in their own room or the kitchen, they will all spend the day in one place. “It will be nice to have things set up and organized and be able to leave it there for the next day and not have it all mixed in with other stuff,” Bourassa says. She’s found or created learning pods for each school-aged child, some for socializing, others for subject work.
For kids attending new schools, which is a nerve-racking new routine at the best of times, doing it online adds a fresh layer of uncertainty. Judy Rose, a mother in Boston, is happy that her son Dellon will start his freshman year at a new school online; she says it’s better for his ADHD, and she can help keep him on task during the school day. But she worries about Dellon getting lost in the system. “In his last school, I knew who to email. But now, I don’t know anybody and he doesn’t know anybody,” she says. Rose wants to make certain that Dellon “does not fall through the cracks,” because when Black children fall behind, they often face more severe consequences than their white peers.
Children aren’t the only ones who need rituals to manage their stress and create some semblance of certainty: Parents’ lives are also being upended. Heather Lent, a mother of three, will be taking a leave of absence from her job—and a 75 percent salary cut—to try to manage home learning after a disastrous spring. Lee, the former pediatrician, says managing her kids’ schedules stresses her out most. Parents are familiar with long to-do lists, but now the lists are weightier, and we aren’t even really sure what’s meant to go on there, aside from everything. “There’s this really high burden on the lead parent, but it's undefined,” she says.
Lee says she knows she is privileged to be worrying about scheduling. Millions of low-income families lack the internet connectivity that makes online learning possible. Black and Hispanic parents, worried about the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on their communities, are opting to keep kids home for remote instruction at far higher rates than white parents, when given a choice. Nostalgia for rituals is a luxury in the face of concerns about food security, health, and employment. But losing beloved traditions only makes these uncertain times harder to bear.
Teachers are feeling unsettled as well. Every August, as parents and kids eke out their last days of summer freedom, Stephanie Spring, a teacher at a rural public school in Vermont, prepares her kindergarten classroom. She puts name labels on cubbies, uses cushions and blankets to make the quiet reading corner safe and cozy, arranges books at appropriate heights so small hands can get to them.
This July, when Vermont planned to return with in-person learning, Spring packed most of these things away to prepare a coronavirus-safe classroom. The custodial staff removed the colorful carpet—nothing soft could remain—and replaced tables for group work with desks, spaced six feet apart. Spring packed away puppets and pillows, board games and puzzles, and spent her own money on plastic bins to individualize her students’ toys: blocks, Legos, paints, all the classroom objects designed to teach kindergartners how to be part of a group.
There will be no circle time—that magical nexus in which kids learn to share, take turns, express themselves, all while learning literacy and numeracy through singing and telling stories. In July, Spring asked a representative at the Vermont Department of Health if she was banned from singing in her classroom. She was told she could do it—at a six-foot distance, in a mask. But the kids couldn’t sing back.
“How do you think you learned the alphabet?” Spring asked me.
Spring ultimately opted to teach from home, because her own daughter’s child-care center has reduced its hours under new state guidelines. She will not be teaching kindergarten, which she loves and has done for 12 years.
When so much routine and ritual has been lost, even silver linings can feel gray. The fortunate parents who felt that their kids were overscheduled pre-coronavirus are facing a pared-back set of activities for the fall. That should be a relief, but we’ve never been so aware that sports, music, drama, and book clubs do more than fill students’ calendars. They help kids explore themselves, form new friendships, and find a counterbalance against pure academics. How much will we miss afternoons and evenings in the bleachers next to other parents watching our kids compete, sweaters and scarves tucked in against the coming chill?
There’s one tradition we won’t have to forgo: the annual picture many families take with children holding signs announcing their grades, and marking the passage of time. My friends have joked that they will do it in front of the computer. Rosenstrach is considering taking the picture with her daughter, a rising senior, in pajamas, after which she will head upstairs to her room for class. “Maybe,” she joked, “we will put a mask on her.”