Staples used to have a back-to-school commercial set to the Christmas classic, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” where a happy dad frolicked through the pencils and Post-it notes while his children shuffled gloomily behind the shopping cart and the announcer giddily intoned “They’re going back!”

Sending my second-grader back to in-person school in Baltimore City for the first time since March 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, is a little more complicated. But I completely get the impulse to do a jig through the school supply aisle.

Academically, remote learning was rough for my son, and it was hard for both of us emotionally and mentally. When I started looking forward to taking out the trash just to get a few minutes alone, I knew we both needed time with people who weren’t each other. Am I nervous about this, as he’s too young to be vaccinated and delta and its attendant coronavirus variants are raging? Yes. But did I really need him out of my house so I could work and think without him popping up like a very cute whack-a-mole? Also yes. Emphatically so.

For myself and other area parents, having our kids back in school feels like a form of mental and emotional self-care. This isn’t about spa vacations, although if you’d like to send me on one, I will not turn it down. It’s about being better parents, partners and humans when we aren’t compelled to go hide in the bathroom for a little peace.

“I learned a long time ago that you have to put your oxygen mask on first,” says Mara Kaiser Braunger, 44. She says she realized that the day her kids went back to school in Fairfax County, Va., “was the first time I’d been alone since March 2020. It’s about making sure you have what you need in order to wake up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other.”

For Braunger’s friend, Maggie DeMello of Alexandria, Va., sending her own sons, ages 11 and 13, back to school in late August, was “glorious. It’s been so long that there’s been constant noise in the house, and now that they’re both in school full-time, it’s like ‘Why is it so quiet? What are they doing? Oh, that’s right! There’s no one here!’ ”

Nobody’s being cavalier about the possible dangers of in-person school, and we aren’t even sure our kids won’t return to learning on our couches at some point. “It’s been a major balancing act in many homes, so a return to in-person learning removes that weight, although it adds the weight of worrying more about the safety of our children,” says Leslie Holston, a school psychologist for Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland.

But even with that consideration, I and the other parents I interviewed need time without our kids to do things we just can’t do well or at all with them around. I no longer have to get a babysitter, like I did this summer, to be able to go bra shopping without a 7-year-old snickering in the corner.

Jupe Gale, 52, of Loudoun County, Va., is looking forward to going back to CrossFit, “which is like my Prozac.” And with her two kids going to day care and third grade, Kate Detweiler, 44, of South Arlington will be able to get a haircut or have an uninterrupted phone conversation.

“I actually got a-year-and-a-half at home with my (now 2-year-old) that I would not have had, and we had a lot of fun mixed in there, but it was very stressful,” Detweiler says. “I am an extroverted introvert. Having my kids and husband here all the time, I never got that time to myself, and I had no social life. My son’s first day back in school wasn’t particularly productive, but I needed to take a breath. It was super quiet here!”

“Think of it as maintenance,” says Keya Belt, 38, whose daughter goes to school near their home in Anne Arundel County while Belt teaches in Baltimore. “Being able to sit on the porch for a minute and drink coffee and not hear her in the background is important. Otherwise, you can forget to be you.”

For Belt, whose husband is overseas in the military, knowing her daughter is safely learning while she works is a huge relief. Gale, the CrossFit enthusiast, relates. She lost her job as a government IT contractor at the beginning of the pandemic because she wasn’t allowed to work remotely as her then-second-grader learned from home. She was able to turn her former side gig hanging art in homes and offices into a business, but having to rely on friends to watch her now-fourth-grader with day-care opportunities closed for safety, “it was juggling, juggling, juggling.”

Jen Barrett, 45, of Annapolis wasn’t even in a hurry to get her children out of the house for herself. “I enjoyed us having lunch together,” she says. But she will be able to focus on being a full-time student in an accelerated nursing program this fall, “and my kids need to go to school because they need three-dimensional people.”

Nobody has any idea where this is all going, but we do know where we’ve been, and while none of these choices are ideal, having time to process the toll of the pandemic is essential. Henri Wingfield, whose son is on the same Alexandria rec soccer team as DeMello’s and Braunger’s, lost both her mother and her longtime job in the past year-and-a-half. “I needed space just for me, to deal with those losses, and him going to school gave me the ability to do that. It’s a blessing.”

Since my son’s been back in school, I’ve had similar epiphanies. I’ve had time to get in a walk or a run before turning on the computer and working as a freelance writer. I can do a Target run. This week, I even got to have lunch, midday, with a friend at a place without a kid’s menu.

That said, it’s always a relief to see his little masked face each afternoon, excitedly telling me what he did that day in school. And because that school day didn’t happen at my coffee table, it’s always a surprise.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a journalist and author of the memoir “Black Widow.” Until recently, she was the longtime entertainment and lifestyle columnist and writer for the Palm Beach Post. She lives in her hometown of Baltimore.

You can sign up here for the On Parenting newsletter.

More reading: