Back-to-School Dread

Why parents are more afraid than ever

Back-to-school season used to be my favorite. I loved buying fresh notebooks and pens, figuring out what my first-day outfit would be, and that jumpy feeling in my stomach when I thought about the new year ahead. My daughter is starting middle school this year; under normal circumstances we’d be happily chatting about using a locker for the first time and debating how she should wear her hair on the first day of 6th grade. 

Instead, I’m glued to my couch—my body so heavy with anxiety and fear that I’ve found it hard to get up to do the most basic chores, let alone think about fucking notebooks. 

I’m far from alone. 

Parents I know are scrambling to find pediatricians who might give their not-yet-12 year-old the Covid vaccine off-label, now that it’s FDA approved. Others are simply lying to their local CVS about their kid’s age, desperate to see them protected before they walk into a building with hundreds of other students. I don’t blame them, not even a little. 

I’m doing my own ethical dance, trying to sort out what I can do to shield my once severely ill daughter from a virus that we still know so little about—one that is killing children and leaving others with baffling long-term neurological symptoms.

And this is not just about physical health. Parents have seen the mental and emotional toll the pandemic has already taken on our children—quarantine, of course, but also the learning behind plexiglass desk dividers, and the lack of everyday things like sleepovers or stress-free playdates.

The way kids interact with the world around them has completely changed. It’s a loss that’s impossible to measure. 

Being a parent in a moment like this is vaguely surreal. You watch your neighbors walk around happily, going to restaurants and getting back to their lives as if all is normal again. But if you have an unvaccinated child, you’re living in a completely different universe—one dominated by rapid tests and emails comparing the best new medical masks for smaller faces. 

How is it possible that so many others have moved on while we’re still here in the thick of it? Parents can see that the people around them are exhausted of all the health precautions, or more confident now that they’re vaccinated. 

That’s what makes our fear so much worse than it was a year ago: at least then, everyone seemed evenly concerned. Now it feels as if we’re on our own.

I realize how fortunate I am, living in a community with high vaccination rates. I cannot begin to imagine the fear and stress of parents who will be sending their children into classrooms with unmasked and unvaccinated staff and students. It’s stomach-churning. 

We want Layla to play with her friends, and to learn in a classroom with teachers who aren’t just a face on a screen. She needs that. But I also know that on the first day of school, my overwhelming instinct will be to throw myself in front of our apartment door so my daughter can’t leave.

Because while the world falls apart, the only thing I’m sending her out armed with is some cloth over her face and a few new pencils.