The red and white tape that resembled the scene of a murder guided me to a place to leave my fifth grade daughter, far from the school grounds, during a global pandemic. I was at her private international school where we live as expats in Switzerland. I wasn’t allowed to park, but was guided by a masked man waving me to a spot in the parking area. Am I in a dystopian novel? I wondered remembering that I'd been told to remain in my car. No other cars were around me. What has happened to school? I looked at the familiar trees surrounding the campus, the empty dog poop bags and lip gloss on the seat next to me. No, I was just a mom, dropping her kids at school after lockdown, in a pandemic. It just looked different.
Parents like me have been given the choice by admins of our private, international school: leave our children with carefully trained COVID-19-workshoped teachers. Or keep our kids at home for another six weeks, by themselves, learning on the computer, like millions of other kids in the world. We still might keep our middle schooler home, and we’ll definitely keep our high schooler home— but for our fifth grader, we broke down. We don’t have the heart.
“Bye mom,” she said without looking back.
I barely recognized the Head of School waiting, masked, like a flagpole at the far-off curb. The principal stood at another point. A teacher also waited at a strategic welcoming location by the fence under the steel grey sky. If I were to give them suggestions for the future, if ever this day were to replay, I might suggest flowers. Balloons. Anything bright. Perhaps drums and roller skates. Something to make the scene more palatable. But they were doing their very best, like any character, in this bizarre scenario.
My daughter wasn’t wearing a mask, per the school and director of heath’s recommendations. She carried with her a carefully organized backpack containing all of the tools requested in the email we’d received. She had labored over the water bottle, pencil case, ruler, pens, and special case. She'd been anticipating this return, dancing with the pollen that blew into our home from the wildflower fields. None of her belongings would be touched by another person, said the plan outlined in the school’s online directions. These items wouldn’t come home again, till the end of the year, either.
I don’t know how I feel about any of this. Will my daughter bring me, a mom with a compromised immune system, a virus? I just don’t know.
But I do know that our children and I are learning, every day, no matter where we sit. We’re learning about not knowing and finding faith in that. We're learning about trust, patience, boredom, friendship, separation, community, opinion, hygiene. We’re learning about leadership and government. We’re learning that making personal decisions is critical. That swallowing judgement and pride is necessary. That love is better than viruses.
I loved those teachers willing to stand there and make the best of things on a grey day for my child. I loved my child willing to smile and leap off to school despite the bizarre scene.
I wept as I drove home in my empty car, except for the dogs staring at me, confused in the back. How could I leave her? Haven’t I read the news? They said with wagging tales. Worldometer reports that over 280,000 people have died of the coronavirus as of today and 1,857 of those in this tiny country, Switzerland. But today only 36 people so far have contracted it. More confusing, while people in my neighborhood shun masks and rub shoulders on the trails along the Greifensee, a lake in front of me; many I know also talk, including Matthias Egger, the head of the Swiss Covid-19 task force, warn about the second wave like it’s a new final chapter in the Bible.
This terrifies me.
And so I wept while driving home remembering how my fifth grader wept when I told her that we were going to keep her home from school, only a week before.
“I don’t care what the other kids are doing Mom,” she had said. “I need school. I love school. I promise I’ll be careful.”
I wept for the loss of a school full of screaming, joyful, growing, hand-slapping, ball-throwing, ear-whispering, disheveled kids. I wept for the parents not there, not out of their cars, not hugging each other. I wept for my old self, unafraid of leaving my daughter at school. Yet my daughter smiled. This independence— it's what I admire. This love for a teacher, for the classroom experience, for friendship, and for learning— this is priceless, and I know it. My oldest son with special needs has never found such engagement or acceptance in school, so I know it’s value. I felt that as I drove away.
And further, I thought of how I’ve watched school taken, just before the lockdown, from a local refugee girl I work with as a volunteer. She lost her mother journeying to Switzerland to find freedom. Now she’s no longer allowed to attend the school where she started making friends because she has no paperwork and the Swiss authorities don’t believe that she’s a child. Some days, to my dismay, she wears a vest and picks trash in public areas. She has even texted me, via the phone I gave her, sharing her joy of having work to do.
"It keeps my mind away from the troubles," she explained.
I asked this same refugee girl if it was hard to watch her 14-year-old brother return to school yesterday when his program reopened.
“No!” she acted surprised. We were talking on Facetime “I’m just glad he can go to school,” she said, smiling.
“I’m grateful he’s going to school too,” I replied, trying hard to smile back. My throat was tight then, too. But I'll keep trying. Maybe we can all learn from the kids.