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.)
Read: I run a tutoring company. I get dozens of calls a day about learning pods.
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.
Read: Preparing your mind for uncertain times
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.