What It’s Like to Send My Kindergartner to School in Bradley County During a Viral Pandemic

Shannon Ashley

For one thing, it’s not all bad.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=0AKo0u_0YZBq2CE00YesPhotographers | AdobeStock

Back in August, I wasn't sure what to expect with schools opening back up in Cleveland, Tennessee. Parents seemed pretty divided about the whole thing, but I knew if my daughter didn't go back to school, I'd never get any work done.

Six months later, I'm happy to report that school has been a great experience for us despite all the necessary precautions to avoid COVID-19.

Monday through Friday, I wake up at 6AM. Oh, who am I kidding? My alarm is set for 6AM, but I sleep terribly these days, so I’m usually up too early or still lying in bed at 6:15 trying to will myself to move.

And then I get up. Sometimes I shower, sometimes I don’t. Grab a uniform and give it to my daughter. She goes to a small private school in Bradley County where they wear “uniforms” but the guidelines are pretty relaxed. Lately, she likes dresses.

She went to this same school for pre-kindergarten last year. I never dreamed I’d send my kid to a private school, but abruptly changed my mind in 2019 when my friend put her 4-year-old into their “forest preschool” last year.

In the back of my mind, I always planned to put my daughter into public school for kindergarten. But when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the schools, I began to feel a new appreciation for the benefits of a small, private school.

It’s so nice to have some normalcy again this year after last year was so stressful with school closings across Tennessee.

Even just a little bit of normalcy helps. Masks are new, of course. They make the mornings feel a little bit more tedious, and there’s always that pressure or worry about forgetting her mask in the morning. I try to keep extra masks in the car, just in case. Her school started back up on August 17 and so far, I’ve only forgotten the mask once. Having some in the car saved me from having to turn the car around, however.

My daughter’s school doesn’t have a bus for daily transport, so parents drive their students each day and pick them back up. Last year, when I didn’t have a car or driver’s license, this was a huge issue, and I spent at least $20 a day on Uber. Assuming I even could catch an Uber here in Cleveland.

This year, I’m a driver, so I enjoy the freedom of getting my daughter to school without worries about being late or dealing with extra exposure to others.

We typically get to school right when it opens, at 7:40AM. Normally, I’d walk her into her classroom and say hello to her teacher. Now, because of the coronavirus, I use the car line since parents aren’t allowed inside the school building.

After waiting for our turn, we pull up to the front entrance and the principal takes my daughter’s temperature. I have to admit that I wonder about the accuracy because I’m pretty sure I’ve got the same no-touch thermometer in the loser pile at home. It’s only there in case my more reliable one craps out. But he takes her temp, and my daughter awkwardly grabs her lunch, water bottle, and little black drawstring bag.

One of the most annoying things about this new school year is that the kindergarteners aren’t allowed to bring their own backpacks. To save on space in the classroom since everyone’s belongings have to be kept separate, the school purchased thin drawstring bags. The school’s been in session for nearly six weeks and my kid still can’t figure out how to get the hang of that bag.

It takes a minute and I suspect we’re one of the slowest drop-offs in the car line, but eventually, my daughter stumbles out of our car with her face mask in place, her bags a tangled mess in her hands, and then she quickly marches up the path to school. Instead of entering through the front doors, walking past the office and down the hallway, she hooks right and heads directly into her classroom from the outside door.

Her teacher or a teacher’s assistant holds the door open for her and doles out hand sanitizer, then my daughter puts her belongings away for the day.

There’s a shelf where all of the students place their water bottles. Each student has a different sea creature sticker to mark their spot around the classroom. The kids set their water bottles on their stickers which are spaced to prevent touching anyone else’s bottle. My kid is happy that she’s got the sea horse.

It’s a similar situation for lunch each kid’s cubby is designated with their sticker. The entire kindergarten classroom is ocean themed.

I don’t know exactly what happens in the classroom each day, but the teacher makes an effort to take photos and put them up on the Class Dojo app, a couple of times a week.Author’s daughter in her Kindergarten classroom

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=2dkcOE_0YZBq2CE00Author's daughter in her Kindergarten classroom

This school is a bit unusual because the pre-K and Kindergarten classes do the forest thing. In addition to recess, every day, the kids spend about three hours outside for “nature time.” The virus changes things, so, the various classes no longer mingle. Before COVID-19, the kindergarteners and preschoolers would sometimes have nature time together.

When my daughter’s class isn’t outdoors, they’re learning in the classroom. The pint-sized tables have dividers to add a layer of protection when masks are removed, like for lunch.

The kids also enjoy “centers” which are placed around the room and disinfected between each student. During center time, the kids get to take off their masks if they aren’t around the others. Teachers wear masks at all times.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3LEc7a_0YZBq2CE00Author’s daughter in her Kindergarten classroom (center time)

The kids also get to take their masks off at recess. I’ll admit this sort of makes me cringe, but I understand that in the Tennessee heat, it’s terribly tough to run and play in a cloth mask.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=4LsLox_0YZBq2CE00Author’s daughter at recess

In previous years, school supplies were communal. This year, the school has provided individual supplies so each kid has their own pack of crayons, colored pencils, scissors, and glue sticks, etc.

The school also gave each student a rainbow cloth mask, though parents are asked to pack extras just in case a child needs to replace the one they wore to school.

Now that masks are such an important accessory, I try to keep taking photos to keep the experience light and fun. I take a lot more photos, as a result, which is probably a good thing. I imagine it will mean a lot for her to look back on these photos years down the road.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=4L0Zry_0YZBq2CE00Author's daughter before school

Yesterday, my daughter was wildly excited about the schoolwide “dress like an animal” day. I suspect the school will offer more themed days for students to help boost morale and give them something special to look forward to. My daughter tells me they held a socially-distanced “animal parade.”

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=1axZel_0YZBq2CE00Author's daughter before "dress like an animal day"

Last week, they did a “dress down” day for charity. This time, we all donated a few bucks for glioblastoma research.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3Krc4P_0YZBq2CE00Author's daughter on a "dress down" day

Due to the virus, the school keeps everyone with their own class — something I know is much easier for a small school to do. The pre-K class is capped at 12 students, my daughter’s class is capped at 15 (but has 12), and the remaining four classes are each capped at 25, though most contain far fewer students.

Grades 1 through 8 are all “split classes,” which means there’s just one class for the first and second graders, one class for third and fourth grades, and so forth.

All in all, the school has less than 100 people, including the staff and teachers.

Frankly, there are so many things this school does that the public schools can’t do, and I understand there’s a lot of privilege here. Before school resumed in August, they installed a special bipolar ionization system to help filter out viruses from the air.

While the school has some affiliation with the on-site church — and it was in fact the church that took care of the HVAC upgrades, the school itself is overseen by the Georgia-Cumberland Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists. Considering how they dramatically reduced tuition last year when learning went remote, and they didn’t increase tuition this year above the standard tuition from 2019, I get the sense that the money is very well managed. Every spring, the school hosts a large rummage sale to raise money. Last spring, it was canceled due to COVID-19 of course, so I half-expected the school to tack on extra fees or hike up tuition due to all of the extra costs related to virus prevention.

But as far as I can tell, they’ve done a good job of reallocating or shifting funds. Between that and the fact that they take the virus seriously, I truly trust the teachers and administrators.

Going into the school year, we all knew there’d be some positive COVID-19 cases, but so far, this school hasn't had to close at all like most other Bradley or Hamilton County schools. There have been just a few COVID cases, and they've all been easily contained by following CDC and AAP recommendations.

I’ll admit that it’s all still a bit eerie for me.

When my daughter gets in the car after school, I take her face mask off and stick it in a bag to be laundered at the end of the week. We use hand sanitizer and I wonder if I’m supposed to feel like everything — her clothes, her bag, her water bottle, etc — are potentially contaminated goods. Every day, I have a tendency to tell myself to relax, because there’s no way to ever know, and no way to constantly disinfect every inch of our lives.

Instead, I’ve decided that doing our best is as best as we can do.

Since my daughter went to this same school for all-day pre-K, we’ve got the benefit of having something to compare this year to.

So far, most of the little annoyances seem to impact me more than my daughter. She’s yet to complain about wearing the masks or being unable to hug her friends and teacher.

The little annoyances are small. Last year, I typically purchased hot lunch for my daughter. This year, the school hasn’t re-opened its lunch service or cafeteria. Again, I know this is a privileged thing. Parents now pack their kids' lunches each day and the students eat inside their classroom, or outdoors. So, in addition to the masks, I have to remember the lunches.

It feels weird that I don’t talk to my daughter’s teacher every day. Honestly, I don’t talk to her much at all. I understand that her role as a kindergarten teacher is much more difficult this year. Extra sanitization, social distancing, keeping every child’s belongings separated, and performing temperature checks throughout the day seems like a lot of extra work for one person. I only leave her notes or message her through the class app when I must — so as not to disturb her — and it all just feels odd.

The school’s aftercare program has also changed. Last year, I could opt to have my daughter stay until 5:30 PM if I needed a few more hours to work. This year, aftercare is still available, but parents are asked to only utilize it when absolutely necessary. It’s harder work on the facilitator, too, since they’ve got to keep kids separated by classroom.

For now, there are no field trips. No schoolwide gatherings like the typical weekly chapel — each classroom now joins Chapel over Zoom. And there’s no singing without masks and face shields, or plastic dividers.

Sending my daughter to kindergarten this year certainly isn’t what I dreamed it would be. But it’s also not the grim portrait some folks paint it out to be. Our school is so fortunate, and I daresay much better prepared than most others in our area. Though my friend in Cleveland who teaches at the local high school — and has two children in a local public grade school — has told me the whole thing has gone better than she expected.

From what I’ve seen, it’s easiest for the kids attending school in-person, assuming that their schools, teachers, and families all take the virus seriously while keeping the messaging positive.

The students are happy to interact with their classmates and teachers despite the awkwardness of masks. They’ve learned how to roll with the punches and have adapted to the changes intended to keep them safe. Well, safer.

At the same time, I know most teachers are overwhelmed — particularly in public schools where staff hasn’t been equipped with the tools or resources they need.

I wrote this story to address the fact that across America, it’s not all bad.

Some of us are having a nice time sending our kids to school, though I feel pretty guilty about admitting that.

See, I’ve got several friends who are teachers. The one here in town who teaches at the public high school. Another is a guidance counselor for a public school in nearby Georgia.

Other teacher friends — those who live further away — have been understandably vocal about the fact that they shouldn’t have to risk their lives to teach in the middle of a poorly managed pandemic. Some have opted out of public teaching altogether, and that generally means taking a pay cut.

My teacher friends who object to risking their lives are absolutely correct. I truly believe it. However, some have gone as far as to tell others on social media that nobody should send their children to an in-person school because it’s selfish and even cruel.

That is where I have to disagree.

It’s been difficult for me to talk about the benefits of having my daughter back in school. While some of my friends talk about the sacrifices they’ve made to either teach online or to keep their own kids home for distance learning, and then encourage the rest of us to do the same thing, I understand what’s happening here. They’re making the best choices they can, yet they don’t realize what it’s like to be a single working parent.

From mid-March to mid-August, my mental health suffered greatly as I awkwardly juggled parenting, working, housekeeping, and my sorry excuse for self-care. To a good degree, sending my daughter back to school saved me. Or, it’s saving me.

In the middle of a pandemic, I don’t think anybody wins. We all take various risks and we all have to decide which risks are worth taking.

There's no winning here. Plenty of us still don't sleep through the night.

We're all just doing what we can to get by.

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Single mama, full-time writer, ex-vangelical. It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. I cover real-life issues, like family, parenting, relationships, and spiritual abuse.

Cleveland, TN

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