The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kids normally fear the first day of school. This year, the delta variant has their parents scared, too.


I should have my children’s school supplies bought by now.

I don’t.

I should have new school clothes purchased, folded and ready for the first day of class.

I don’t.

I should have tracked down the perfect Minecraft backpack already.

I haven’t.

Throughout the pandemic, like many moms, when I thought of this moment — the reopening of schools and the refilling of offices — I imagined myself sprinting toward it. I envisioned myself racing down the aisles of Target, tossing glue sticks and other school supplies in my basket. I fantasized about rushing through my closet to dust off work-appropriate clothes.

But now that the moment is near, I’m not sprinting, racing or rushing. My movements are more of a cautious limp.

Questions weigh heavily on my mind: Once schools open, will they stay open? If a child comes to class with covid-19, what does that mean for the school — how many people will have to quarantine and for how long? Does it make sense, safety-wise and cost-wise, to look for backup sources of child care?

No one wants a return to normal more than parents of young children. Also true: No one is more aware of how far we are from normal than parents of young children.

Working parents. Out-of-work parents. Teachers who are parents. First-time parents. Grandparents who are in the role of parents again. They are exhausted and they are worried. For more than a year and a half, they’ve been navigating unfamiliar terrain while carrying snack-begging children on their backs, and now, just when they thought they were near the end of that exhausting hike, they find out they’ve been walking in circles. They are right back where they started.

The moms are not all right — and maybe that’s okay for children to see

Headlines about pandemic parenting that appeared a year ago could be published again right now and no one would notice. Take this one that the New York Times published in September 2020: “The Pandemic Is a ‘Mental Health Crisis’ for Parents.” The line under it reads, “New studies show caregivers with young children are stressed, with no signs of relief on the horizon.”

Or this one that The Washington Post published in July 2020: “Pandemic parenting is like being trapped in a Choose Your Own Adventure book.”

That remains true, except that those books have clear endings. This one seems to keep taking us back to the same page.

“Delta deja vu” is how a recent email in my inbox described it. Alliteration normally makes me smile. This time, it caused an involuntary groan. I closed the email before reading it.

The highly contagious delta variant that is raging through the region has left pediatricians concerned — with one recently writing, “I am more worried for children than I have ever been” — and parents of kids too young to get vaccinated even more so. It has turned normally calm parents into anxious ones, and normally anxious parents into ones filled with more questions than there are answers.

On a social media page created for a Northern Virginia community to share coronavirus information, a person posed this query: “I’m not looking for negative comments here. Just asking a simple question. Is anyone concerned about having the elementary aged kids going back to school?”

Among the answers:

“Yes, extremely concerned.”

“I’m very concerned. I’ve been searching for the best masks for my daughters and trying different ones for months.”

“It’s very scary but it’s also scary seeing the psychological changes in children from the lack of in-person school and all that entails.”

“I think the fall is going to be very difficult. I wish there could be a hybrid option again until elementary kids are vaccinated.”

“As a related matter — how does a family switch from in person to virtual?”

There are, of course, parents who aren’t concerned. There are also plenty of people who don’t have children who will feel the urge to wave away worries with numbers. They will cite the low percentage of kids who catch the virus and get seriously ill or die.

Trust me, wary parents know those numbers (and probably what ventilation systems their children’s schools use). They want nothing more than for their fears to be proved unfounded. They want you to be right.

But they also know the issue goes beyond percentages.

Children aren’t just numbers. One of mine is a brown-eyed 8-year-old who gently cups bugs in his hands to get them to safety. The other is a curly-haired 6-year-old who convinced me to sew him a stuffed panda during the pandemic. They count on me to tell them what is safe — and what is not — and it is their faces I see when I think about the good and the unbearable that the school year might bring.

Parents aren’t just parents. Many are also employees. Millions of moms left the workforce during the pandemic. And many others ran themselves ragged trying to keep their jobs. They made phone calls while making lunches. They read spreadsheets while reading notes slipped to them from their kids (probably asking for another snack). Even if their children don’t get sick, it takes just one classmate testing positive for the coronavirus to send their family back to where they were at the beginning of the pandemic — stuck at home, facing unknowns and hoping their bosses understand.

When I told my children they would be returning to school in the fall, I did so with enthusiasm. It was genuine. I’m excited for them to see their friends and get encouragement from a teacher who can see their work (and faces) up close.

I’m eager to get back to a work schedule that doesn’t involve cracking open my computer before the sun rises and closing it long after I put my children to bed.

But I’m also worried.

Maybe that’s why I haven’t bought those school supplies, new clothes and Minecraft backpack yet. Maybe doing so would signify I’m all in, and I’m not yet there.

Or maybe the reason is simpler: Pandemic parenting is exhausting.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

Kids will have to wear masks in schools, but it’s adults who should be hiding their faces

Some objects will remind us of the pandemic long after it’s over

Stark, devastating pleas show child poverty and covid colliding to create ‘an unimaginable time’ for country’s youngest