It’s July 20th – and that’s probably why I feel so broken.

Parents develop a sort of internal clock, as the years go by. When kids are young, this internal clock changes all the time – nap time, developmental milestones, vaccination schedules.

But when kids hit 5 or 6 and start heading off to school, the internal-parental clock gets stuck in place for a long time. School starts in August or early September, and ends in late May or early June. Every. Year. It’s a timeframe that’s been in place since school reformers codified the long summer break in the late 19th Century, when schools were all following disparate models depending on weather, agronomy, and a lack of required school days. In fact, the vast majority of schools follow this August – May calendar, with only 4% of public schools in the U.S. now attending year-round.

So no wonder I feel a little adrift.

Today is July 20, and school in my district starts on August 20. My internal school clock, put in motion a decade ago when my son started first grade, clicked its giant gears into place with a big thud this morning, as the school start date rolled up on my internal calender. One month away – late July – is the time to start getting these kids ready for school. The regular list of items formed in my mind:

  • Make sure he’s registered – check.
  • Confirm his class schedule and teacher(s) – check.
  • Review supply lists; buy calculators, instruments, binders, and pencils – check.
  • Do some informal research about his teachers, classmates, etc. – check.
  • Buy school clothes! – check.

But this year, another big agenda item is on the list, and it makes the others seem absolutely irrelevant right now:

  • Decide how he’ll attend school. – not even close to checked.

How in the world did we get to a place where the most fundamental question of our kids’ education is so chaotically in question? And a mere month before school starts?

Let’s travel back to those mid-1800s, before today’s formal school calendar was established, when a patchwork of schedules covered the country – with agrarian students attending in the winter and summer, and urban students attending on a more year-round basis. Students were not required to attend 180 days a year, and in fact many schools were open almost 250 days a year. Students attended when they were able, and if it was too hot or the corn was coming in, they worked or stayed home instead.

Almost 200 years later, our entire world order is now disrupted, and COVID-19 is dictating our choices. Yet those choices are, at best, a rude imitation of any choices we would have formulated, given the chance. District personnel across the country are weighing classroom size, delivery mechanisms, and teacher risk – almost as if spring quarter never happened and we were starting from zero.

While it feels like there should be more answers right now than there are, districts are attempting a massive change.

And I for one, want to thank those doing this work.

Do yourself a favor, and go read your school board meeting agendas and minutes. Watch the meeting videos, and review the budget. Our schools are huge, bureaucatic entities, subject to the direction of state governments and federal standards. It’s like turning a freighter around, to change these giant structures in just a few months, so take a moment and thank those who are trying so hard to do this right.

Then, take a moment and tell yourself it’s going to be okay.

Yes, there is big risk out there, and yes, some of us will get sick by taking those risks. But approaching the school year with a “sky is falling” mentality doesn’t help any of us, including our kids. Even those who choose remote learning are not totally free from risk, and there is no guarantee that those who attend school in person will get sick. It’s a wedding buffet with choices none of us would have selected, but we still have to choose from the menu.

Like everything else with COVID, it’s an opportunity for change.

Once I saw the hard work our district was doing behind the scenes, I realized there are many ways to make this school year work. Our district teams had thought through the options with careful precision, considering those who learn well at home and those who must be in school – those with marginalized home lives and those whose school attendance in-person right now is likely to change the trajectory of their lives forever. For many children, going to school may even keep them alive.

Maybe once this dust settles, and August 20 comes and goes – even with all of the bad choices – we can take a look at the bigger picture and make some truly fundamental changes in our school systems. Are there opportunities to include more students who are barely getting by? Can we help those at the margins be more fully involved and gain more from this very public system? Can teachers and staff feel more safe and supported than they currently do?

There is reason for hope.

My son is 16, and he’s unreasonably optimistic about the future. It’s inspiring to watch him and his friends talk about politics, and injustices, and reasons for change. I believe these kids are truly going to change our future in dramatic ways, and I also believe they are poised to make those changes with or without the rest of us.

And isn’t it quite possible that, given this enormous challenge during their formative years, this raw energy and desire for change will be polished in a way they wouldn’t get from a crisis-free life? My mother was adamant that kids need challenge; she was always leery of those who had it too easy. I think she was right – and I also think we are in for quite a wonderful world after 2020 and this pandemic make their blessed exit. Because these kids are truly fired up to change the world, and this pandemic is only going to spur them on to make it happen sooner.

It’s quite possible that there are unknown silver linings to this train wreck of a year, and we may end up with a far better public school system down the road because of it – one that meets the needs of more children and that never would have come to pass without our present trials.

My mother would say that sounds about right.

Here are key elements of how schools are planning for fall openings. And for more about how to use words in a powerful, truthful way, send me an email at [email protected].