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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: It’s not the main reason to open schools, but a bit less family togetherness will be wonderful

North Central High School seniors Andrew Lubben, left center, and Lucy McCollum, center right, were back in Matt Johnson’s advisory period classroom for the first time this school year on Monday morning in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

It was not even 8:30 in the morning and the kid was already wearing clothing, for heaven’s sake.

Shirt, pants, socks, Vans – all the way dressed.

He had showered. Stuffed a backpack with more than the backpack could hold: laptop, binder, books, sweatshirt.

Filled a sticker-covered water bottle. Packed a couple of masks.

Then, glory be, he left the house and went to middle school – for 6 hours.

At the risk of being glib, it has to be said: It’s important that kids return to school, for many reasons including this very selfish one – we need them to go away for a while. For just a bit. To go over there for a while, doing good things, learning, growing, developing, while we parents stay over here, briefly, blissfully without them.

I mean, we all love our kids, right? But so much family togetherness can be brutal.

To say so is elevating a minor inconvenience at a time of major suffering. It’s selfish to say, and it risks minimizing more serious consequences. The death toll is massive, and the number of people who have fallen ill is even bigger. The toll on health care workers and systems has been enormous. Workers have lost jobs, business owners have closed their doors, many in the “essential” workforce have been forced to risk their own health for wages at or near the minimum. Many children who need school most have suffered the pandemic in ways we are likely still discovering.

Also, schools do not exist to baby-sit our kids, though many of us – and particularly working single parents – rely on them for just that. One gets the sense that not everyone understands this. For all the legitimate concern about the effect of the pandemic closures on kids’ learning, bellicose demands to “open the schools!” seem to come mostly from an insistence that we not suffer any further inconvenience, a blind belief – like the push by local political leaders to get the governor to let us emulate Idaho – that our problem is not the pandemic, but politics.

But our state’s cautions have been generally wise if not perfect, and there’s reason to think they have paid off in the most important metric of all: fewer deaths. Compare, say, our death rate (66 per 100,000) here with wide-open Idaho (105), and you’ll realize that there is much more to the be concerned about than the daily difficulties of having kids at home all the time.

Still, for those of us lucky not to have had it worse, and particularly for those of us with teenagers, these shut-in days have been a trial. I have to think that many parents in the Spokane school district shared my feelings Tuesday morning as their middle school and high school kids hobbled out the door under the weight of their massive backpacks: Hallelujah!

I work mostly at home these days, for which I am fortunate. I am writing this in such silence and stillness that it’s hard to believe. In the other room, my wife is reading the paper. I can hear her turn every page. Our son is not here to be fed, to be cajoled over classwork, to be argued with over looking at his little screen instead of his school screen, to be argued with over what he is and isn’t allowed to do, to be argued with about everything.

We have never been more of a family than we’ve been during the last year. Together in everything. On top of each other constantly. In our old house, you can hear almost everything everyone else is doing. When someone plays a video game, everyone hears the video game. When someone plays the piano, everyone hears the piano. We’re lucky, at a time when many others are not, and yet every crowded day makes it harder to really feel that good fortune.

Another page just rustled in the next room. The furnace hummed. The sun in the window, so bright and warm for the past couple of days, seems even more intense than it has. It is more and more possible to see the end of this awful time coming. More and more possible to believe it can happen, here if not in Texas.

The return to school is necessary. What we’re learning about transmission in schools reinforces the idea that it can be done safely, and the schools here are working mightily to ease back responsibly to in-person classes. Teachers and administrators and janitors and support staff and cooks – all of them are putting their own health and well-being on the line to meet this need, while engaging in a gargantuan health and safety challenge heaped on top of the already gargantuan task of educating children.

Our kids need to be in school, in part because they need to be away from us, learning and growing and becoming.

And we need – as much as we love them, which is as much as anyone can love anyone – to be away from them for a bit, too.