COVID weary parents need break

December 18, 2021
An Orangetown Police cruiser parked outside Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg on Friday, December 17, 2021.
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We sent our daughters to school Friday.

Before they left — Caroline, 8, for another third-grade Friday, and Julia, 4, for pre-Kindergarten — the girls took advantage of the clear, mild morning and played school in our backyard. Sitting at a picnic table, Caroline instructed her sister on the alphabet. 

Julia can already spell her name. 

“J-U-L-I-A,” she chimed cheerily. 

I took some comfort in that as I took a deep a breath and put Caroline on the bus a few minutes later. My wife, nine months pregnant with our third child and due to deliver on Monday, told me she took a similar deep breath when she dropped off Julia.

Sending Caroline and Julia to school should be a normal, everyday decision. On Friday, it was a decision that required some small amount of bravery. 

Our school district — like thousands of others across the New York suburbs and the nation — sent a message Thursday warning parents of threats of school violence that had been made across social media platforms like TikTok. Our high school had already been closed Tuesday following a specific threat of violence. A few towns over from our home in northern Westchester County, the schools in Newtown, Connecticut were also closed Tuesday for the ninth anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre.

“All districts in Westchester County have been made aware of a new trend on TikTok that threatens violence at schools nationwide tomorrow, Friday, December 17,” wrote Joel Adelberg, superintendent of the Bedford Central School District, in a Thursday communication to parents. “The safety of our students and staff is of paramount importance. The Westchester County Police Department, the Bedford Police Department and the Pound Ridge Police Department are all providing increased police presence at all of our schools tomorrow.”  

For exhausted parents across the country — who shouldered the rigors of remote learning in the pandemic’s early months, who debated the necessities of vaccines and mask-wearing and who are now facing rising COVID-19 transmission rates in our schools — the threats of violence, real or otherwise, marked a new low in morale. 

On Thursday evening and Friday morning, text chains across my network chimed with inquiries and concerns — “Are you sending your kids?” and “I don’t know if I can.”

After Caroline and Julia set off on their days, I jumped in my car and surveyed the security presence at our elementary school and at our middle and high schools. Police cruisers were parked at each, on the ready. 

‘I did linger a moment longer’

It’s not that parents in my generation — who remember Columbine, lived through 9/11 and have now weathered two years of pandemic — are nervous. It’s that our nerves are raw.

Amanda Smith, a parent in Newtown and a native of Michigan, which is still reeling from the massacre at Oxford High School, told me she was exasperated by the threats, even as she’s come to expect them. 

“I find it astonishing that my children live in a time where the threat of school shootings not only still exists, but has been enhanced to the point that school shootings are just the status quo,” Smith said. 

This week, her son and daughter — in first and third grades, respectively — stayed home on Tuesday. Smith said that despite the omnipresence of threats, she and her husband work hard to protect their kids’ safety — and their innocence.

“They are not yet aware of the significance of the Sandy Hook anniversary,” she said.  “They learned remotely Tuesday because of increased copycat threats. They believed that it was ‘distance learning practice’ for future snow days. I find their innocence both treasured and heartbreaking.”

Smith didn’t discuss Friday’s threats with her children. 

“I implicitly trust my school and local police department’s safety protocols,” she said, “but I did linger a moment longer to watch them wave and watch them walk into the building.”

Jaime Walters, a colleague of mine, also debated sending her daughter to school in Lincoln Park, New Jersey after some text chain-fueled anxiety.

“I know many parents who kept their kids home today, not really worried about an actual shooting,” Walters said before asking, “The kids are so young, and if they hear other kids talk about school shootings, how do they get a good explanation about it without freaking out first?”

Walters conceded that the risks of mass shooting are hardly new — “Sadly, there will always be a risk — every day” — but said the fatigue of the pandemic and the stress of the holidays made facing this week’s threats especially overwhelming. 

‘Keep you safe and love you’

That stress is being felt by students, too. 

Tharaha Thavakumar, a school-based therapist based in East Rochester, New York, said she was working to help students cope with that stress on Friday.

One her students needed help after becoming upset after he’d been kept at home because “his parents didn’t want him to go to school.”

He just wanted to be with his friends, she said.

Thavakumar said that in addition to school resource officers, her school district had seen an increase in the presence of police patrols.

“We’re already in a rough year with mental health after the return from remote learning, and now we add all these societal threats,” Thavakumar said, explaining that she had separate conversations with both her children, one 5 and the other 14, about the threats on TikTok.

“The biggest thing is to listen to your kid and validate how they feel,” Thavakumar said. “Tell them ‘It’s OK to be upset,’ and ‘You should feel worried.’ ”

But that validation, she said, should be balanced with reminding children about the safeguards that are in place in schools.

“There are people there who will keep you safe and love you,” was the message she also gave to her own children, Thavakumar said.

The work to come

We haven’t spoken to Caroline and Julia about the threats that have followed the horrendous attack at Oxford. They don’t remember Newtown, Columbine or Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. They don’t yet operate their lives on smartphones bearing the TikTok and Instagram apps. 

Soon, though, they’ll have to learn. 

There are hard conversations to come. 

And knowing my girls, they’ll ask all kinds of questions. Their queries will be innocent at first, but with time and surely with exposure to technology, they’ll learn the harder truth about living in America today: that we seem incapable about solving the puzzles and crossing the obstacles necessary to stem these threats and the deadly incidents they presage. 

In the meantime — even as we bring another young life into the world this holiday season — our family will try to rest up.

Parenting will take every ounce of strength we can muster.   

Ed Forbes is a senior editor for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Group, overseeing opinion for news organizations in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. Follow him on Twitter: @edforbes. This column originally appeared on NorthJersey.com



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