School During COVID-19: Not What We Expected

I was as disappointed as Isabella that she was starting her first year of high school- Grade 7(!)- during COVID-19. We are cautious over paranoid, so it wasn’t fear that was getting to us. And both my daughter and I were aware the precautions existed for good reason (shoutout to Dr. Tam for keeping us informed!). So it wasn’t that.

We were disappointed because the restrictions make it difficult to get to know a new school and new classmates. With face masks it’s hard to see each other’s facial expressions and get to know them, fully. It’s surprising how much of our personality is conveyed through our mouth’s expressions. Plus….the first year Isabella was supposed to have a locker and it wasn’t allowed (to keep the kids distanced from each other). That really sucked because Isabella was really looking forward to it. Not to mention the constant hand sanitizing, empty hallways, no playing group games at recess….It wasn’t how we wanted to start a new school year in a new school! New people, new school, new teachers- and all from a long arm’s reach away behind a mask. It was weird. But then- it’s been a weird year.

(Ah, quiet summer days before the school schedule.)

Isabella had a rough first couple of months at her new school. She presents as confident, even defiant or aloof at times, but is really shy and has trouble being heard. A lot of her shyness is shown in the way she forms words or holds her mouth….which the new classmates and teachers couldn’t see.

I’m also shy and avoid creating conflict by nature, but I learned to speak up with Isabella this year. First, Isabella tried to speak up for herself but felt they didn’t understand. As a parent, it’s heartbreaking to watch your child struggle and work through hard times.

I’m a fixer- I like to bubble wrap my children in love, protect and shelter them, and fix all of their problems for them. Have you seen the Netflix show, “The Duchess”, with Katherine Ryan? There is a scene where her daughter is getting bullied. Her daughter tries to smooth it over with her bully but gets pushed down instead. Her mom, Katherine, sees it from the fence at school drop-off and becomes enraged. She wants to storm on to the playground and give the bully-girl a harsh talking down! (Every parent ever can relate, I’m sure). Her ex (the daughter’s dad) stops Katherine from rushing on to the schoolyard… but the scene of the mom running in place and flailing her arms to get past him pushing her back is one I relate to- but inwardly. I haven’t been great at advocating for Isabella in the past. I would be sad for her when she struggled and when she brought me the problem I always, in Isabella’s words, “talk it to death”. It was true! I don’t know why she kept telling me about her day- if I was her talking to me, I’d be so exasperated and give up!

(Dressed up as a deer for Halloween at school. Forgetting about the mask rule, we defined most of the features on her nose and mouth, so she looks like she’s just wearing weird makeup. Haha.)

Yes, I admit- I would “talk things to death”. If she had a problem, instead of helping Isabella get to solutions on her own and acting as a guide, I would try to solve it. I would relate my own stories, anecdotes, TV scenes, overheard conversations and hypotheticals, until my throat was dry, just hoping that I would land on something that would resonate with her and help! I’m guessing she heard the first two sentences and then tuned me out: I don’t blame her.

Slowly, with the help of professional advice, backing off. Life is messy and hard so I knew I couldn’t protect her from struggling or pain forever. (As much as I desperately wanted to!) This year, I felt it time to let her figure it out on her own and just act as a sounding board and gentle guide. It has been hard! My heart hurts when she is hurting. I feel it as a physical pain.

At the beginning of the school year, she began with the disappointments of COVID restrictions limiting her independence in a new school as well as the fear of being judged by new classmates. Add to that the high expectations of her new teachers and Isabella was a basket-case. She cried some days- sometimes before AND after school. I taught her to use her voice and helped her figure out wording. It didn’t help- perhaps in the way she presented it, because she’s shy. As a result, in those first two months of school, I learned when to back off and when to step in to advocate for her.

Not being able to go into the school to speak in person made it hard. The teachers had never met me, and vice versa, so we had to make up personalities and tone of voice based on our emails. I had to be so careful with wording to make sure what I was trying to say got across without sounding standoffish, placing blame, or being defensive. As a mom, I realize that the teachers are also under undue stress, with small resources and very little funds. The teachers, I was sure, were doing their best under the circumstances and are human. I also took into account that some personalities clash, even between student and teacher. My aim was to make sure they understood Isabella and stayed professional in interactions with her, no matter how they felt.

Emails went back and forth. I clarified giftedness and Isabella’s sensory sensitivities. Information on how she heard things and how her executive functioning skill set was also sent. I got a few brush-off emails but persisted in keeping conversation open. My voice must have come across the way I intended: as myself and the teachers as a part of her team together trying to help Isabella succeed and becoming more confident, because I started to get feedback from the teachers. I felt we were working towards the same goal.

The crying and dread of the school day stopped and Isabella was calm or happy after school, eventually. The teachers were approaching her differently- answering her questions with more patience, encouraging her to think it through and helping her to get started. Isabella started to feel more in ease at school and even made a couple of new friends.

But I know that Isabella is going to feel like a square peg in a round hole more often than not. She’s going to have to learn to speak up for herself and I’m going to have to learn to be an advocate for her needs.

For now, I’m glad what we’re doing is working and feel so grateful that she has understanding and rational adults as teachers.

My son, Hunter, is doing guided homeschooling, with its different set of challenges, but that’s a story for another day!

How is schooling during COVID-19 going for you?

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