The Great Backpack Debate :: Why I Support In-Person Learning as Option This Fall


I didn’t want to write about this. I said I wouldn’t write about this. Too controversial. Too polarizing. Not my scene. I like bringing people together – feel-good writing, if you will. But as a writer, writing is my therapy, and sometimes I am unable to process my feelings unless I write about them.

I’m talking about my feelings on the upcoming school year, a topic which has ignited sparks, produced claws and churned out buckets of tears in otherwise sane and composed mamas everywhere.

Getting the mail is what changed my mind. I knew if something like getting the mail could make me cry, maybe a couple of other moms out there might relate. I knew I had to write. 

The L.L. Bean catalog was delivered to our mailbox today. You know the one: the backpack and lunchbox edition. At first it made me want to cry, so I flipped it over so I would not have to see the cute kid with the brand-spanking-new backpack walking confidently towards the waiting school bus. Then it made me angry, so I stuffed it deep in the recycling bin. We won’t likely need it, or anything they are peddling, this year.

Same with the rerun of Bella and the Bulldogs my kids were watching on Netflix. A pang of longing for middle school drama and Friday night lights washed over me. And anytime middle school drama sounds good (to me and my middle schooler) you know the situation is quite dire.

And those knots in my gut, well those would be from the fact that I have been back to work in the office since mid June (my husband returned in June as well) and I am scrambling to figure out how my smart but also energetic, social and athletic kids are going to fare opening their laptops day after day (after day after day) for an unlimited foreseeable future of online learning.

As a pharmaceutical rep, my husband is (while wearing a mask) in and out of physicians offices and pharmacies all day every day. I work in the tourism/convention marketing industry and come in contact with people all day long as well (masked, too, of course), but I’m out there.

My kids have been in contact with us, and we have been in contact with the masses ever since we emerged from quarantine. We have admittedly been to the pool, the beach, restaurants and local attractions, and have allowed our kids to play outside with friends all summer. Bike rides, walks, manhunt, sports, tons of time outside – it’s kept them (and us) sane. We wear masks in stores and at attractions, and while waiting for our food in restaurants. We are not trying to buck the system.

But we are also not fearful. And, if you have read any of my other posts you know I can be a bit of a worrywart helicopter mom. I admittedly worry about car accidents, child predators and even head lice. I sometimes worry about sharks and a tree falling on my kids when they are playing outside after a storm, or a lightning strike during a golf match.

It may seem jarring, but when it comes to COVID-19, I am honestly no more fearful for my kids than I am of any of these other tribulations. We will be smart – wash our hands and wear masks when appropriate, but we will not live in fear, and we cannot hide forever.

I have not stopped driving because I am scared of a car accident, but I do wear my seat belt and drive defensively because I have regard for myself, my family, and others. I have not stopped swimming in the ocean or letting my kids do so because of sharks or riptide, but I do watch them cautiously when they are in the surf. I am not going to stop going out in public because of COVID-19, but I will play by the rules.

But mental health is real and it’s what’s going to suffocate many kids, teens, moms, dads, grandparents and great-grandparents before this thing is off our radar for good. And that really worries me.

Which brings me back to the catalog situation and why I took my frustration out on the pages of the cute kids with the backpacks.

My frustration comes with three distinct prongs:

1. My kids did not do well with digital learning in the spring.

My children are active and interactive and like to talk things through. They need in-person, face-to-face interaction with a professionally trained teacher who is not me. Zoom fatigue is real. If adults with superior coping skills and years of workplace experience with hours on end behind a computer are feeling it, then how can we assume our kids will thrive in this environment? 

2. I am working to make sure my kids have adult supervision for at least some portion of the school day, and this is hard.

My husband and I are both back to work, so I will be hiring sitters to help make sure my kids don’t kill each other, and see that they comply with their online learning schedules. This is expensive, but a minor inconvenience of scheduling and budget readjustments as I don’t feel it’s fair to make my 12-year old supervise her younger sister during online school (which she does do a good bit during the summer as part of her contribution to the family) when she has her own extensive coursework to complete.

What really burns my butter is that others may not have any budget to do this and will have children watching children, teaching children and dealing with the emotional roller coaster of online learning, tech difficulties and possibly tantrums. And then, of course, there will be some children with nobody watching them, nobody fixing their lunch. What will happen to them?

3. Many parents are faced with choosing which option (in-person or virtual) is best for their family. Some of us have no choice, as the only choice offered to us is virtual learning.

I had mentally prepared myself for a “hybrid” model where we would send our kids two days a week, but my husband and I had already decided that if a five-day week were offered, we would send our kids. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut when I learned that we would be starting the year (and perhaps ending the year) with online school through a “phased-in” model.

But what about the teachers, you ask? Well, I certainly would not want to put any teachers in a position to teach in person if they fear for their safety, but believe it or not I know many teachers who would like to go back to a face-to-face model, and share some of the same thoughts as the parents who want face-to-face. Many teachers also have school-age kids and need a game plan for their own families.

So why can’t we have both – have a choice for those who want in-person as well as virtual for those who don’t? Would it be possible to allow the teachers and students who want to return to in-person instruction the opportunity to do so?

Let me say this, also. I understand that a pandemic is a lose-lose situation. There are really no winners here, and there is also no one-size-fits-all solution. We have all entered into this pandemic with our unique set of circumstances, including the possibility of preexisting health concerns for a child or someone in the family, family dynamics and living situation, career situation, financial situation, faith, emotional state and anxiety level.

I completely understand that someone else’s set of circumstances is not mine, and, wearing this particular hat as a blogger, I am writing from my personal perspective about my personal feelings. I’m not trying to change your mind. I’m not even trying to validate my own perspective. I’m simply a mom who is doing the best she can and writing happens to be my coping mechanism, as I mentioned (along with a lot of prayer and some pretty extensive workouts).

I understand if you think virtual/online school is best for you, as you have your own set of circumstances and thoughts and I would never try to begin to know what it’s like to be in your shoes. But I can empathize with you in your role as a mom. I know you care about your kids, just as I care for mine. You probably care about my kids, too, just as I care about yours, and children in general. But I’m not in any position to tell you how to parent your children or live your life.

I am hopeful – prayerful – that we will emerge from this pandemic refined by the fire, united in some unforeseen way. There is no instruction manual here. Just a sad, crumpled catalog full of backpacks that may never be used and a whole lot of mamas hoping for the best out of a bad situation. 

How are you feeling about school this year?

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Kelly Barbrey is an early riser, old soul and retail therapy expert. She is a wife to Jonathan and a mom to two strong-willed daughters, born in 2007 and 2010. Kelly grew up in Atlanta, GA and earned a degree in magazine journalism from The University of Georgia. She has worked full time in tourism marketing for Experience Columbia SC since 2004, where she loves to share all the exciting things happening in Columbia, SC with potential travelers. When she’s not working or wrangling kids, she enjoys date nights with her husband at local restaurants, exercise, reading and sharing real and humorous accounts of life, motherhood and nostalgia on her blog, Up Early + Often.



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