In the early morning hours of Monday, March 9, I was locked in battle with my oldest son, Izac, then a freshman in high school, over what felt like his one-billionth request to skip his 7am physical education class. He said he was tired and anxious and begged for a break. I told him that when you commit to something, you show up. End of story. And so off he went to school, bleary-eyed and resentful.
Four days later, all of my kids were home, with schools closed "out of an abundance of caution" to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Before long, the morning rush to get to class on time felt like a distant memory. The pandemic changed everything.
One difference that became clear within a few weeks of lockdown: My son was happy.
Izac, my lanky, serious-faced 15-year-old who runs cross-country and listens to Kendrick Lamar, has ADHD He's never been disruptive - he's more the dreamy, nose-in-a-book type who likes a calm environment and a limited schedule. Sadly, he's rarely had that. But while my husband and I knew the pressure of a traditional school day could be challenging for him, we didn't realize exactly how miserable he was.
It felt like he started breathing again the day in-person school was cancelled. He started smiling again. This happiness was profound.
It felt like our son started breathing again the day in-person school was cancelled
We are not the only family experiencing this. Yes, students across the country are complaining that they miss seeing their friends, and many parents are struggling with the unsustainable arrangement that is working from home while supervising virtual learning. But amid all this, there's also a group of kids who, whether because of bullying, mental health issues or simple overscheduling and pressure, struggled at school in a way that's been made undeniable by the way they're thriving at home amid the pandemic. Parents like me are having to contemplate whether traditional school - a staple of childhood - in fact hurts our children.
A release from classroom stress, peer pressure and bullying
Jen Foreman, a mother of four children from 1 to 19, saw an immediate change in her 13-year-old daughter after classrooms closing kept her home. "Piper was thrilled to be in charge of her own schedule, get the sleep she needed and choose which friends to communicate with," Ms. Foreman told me. Piper has been noticeably less anxious. Her acne has even cleared up since she started distance learning.
One couple I spoke to, who chose to withhold their son's name to protect him from further bullying, told me he said his arm was broken when a classmate shoved him into a wall last fall. They weren't surprised to see his depression lift when he transitioned to virtual learning and no longer had to face his tormentors.
What is behind all this quiet misery that we are now realising was part of daily life for some children? Rosalind Wiseman, the author of "Queen Bees & Wannabees" and "Masterminds & Wingmen," books based on years of research into the social andschool-age kids, said a contributing factor might be the intense pressures that come with emotional lives of schooling in 2020. Just one example: The brutal world of youth athletics. "We didn't grow up with travel sports that separate wealthier families from poorer ones and parents who, during games, scream at each other, coaches and kids and then brag about their child's 'D-1' opportunities with other parents," Ms. Wiseman said.
She said dynamics like this have turned school-based programs into competition with adult-level pressure on children who are often not mature enough to handle it in a healthy way. As soon as Covid-19 lockdowns were in place, all of that pressure instantly lifted.
The modern schooling environment can be more stifling than enriching
There are some children for whom the crowded, test-centred environment of modern schooling is more stifling than enriching. Perhaps this is what explains why Izac's school-related anxiety didn't return as I thought it might when teachers started assigning online work. Sure, we had some standard ninth-grade late work and panicked last-minute projects, but nothing at home has rattled him the way an average day at school did.
He's told his dad and me that even though the medication he takes greatly reduces the symptoms of his ADHD, he would still struggle to concentrate when a classroom got loud.
"Teachers at my school," he said, "don't see it as a problem because the kids are doing something positive, laughing or singing, but it does not have a positive effect on me, because I can't concentrate, and it makes me very stressed."
It's been painful for my husband and me to realise that in the years leading up to this pandemic, our son was driven to exhaustion every day
On top of the boredom and frustration, social media create an ever-present fear of doing something "wrong" or embarrassing in school that may be caught on video and plastered across classmates' accounts. This is particularly true if they are, in any way, social outliers because of their race, disability or neurodivergence.
Lisa Kaplin, a psychologist, told me the kind of anxiety caused by this level of social pressure can be debilitating for children, seriously impairing their ability to learn. "It would be like trying to memorise something in the middle of a construction zone," she said.
During quarantine, Izac hasn't just finished schoolwork with more ease - he's dived into hobbies and subjects he's actually interested in: mountain biking, cooking and practicing archery at the local outdoor range. He even makes his own pizza crusts and sauces from scratch.
It's been painful for my husband and me to realise that in the years leading up to this pandemic, he was driven to exhaustion every day. But, we thought, doesn't everyone hate school from time to time? Isn't every teenager tired? So we nudged him back onto the hamster wheel, assuming that was the alternative to becoming "helicopter parents" who cushion and coddle their kids into lifelong dependency.
We never questioned whether we were pushing him into suffering. Now we have to ask: Will we do it again when his school reopens?
Of course, the ability to explore this question is itself a privilege. Home-schooling is off the table for many working parents, single parents and those whose children have disabilities. Adiba Nelson's 11-year-old daughter, Emory, who has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and relies on a specialised tablet for communication.
Ms Nelson knows that Emory is missing out on social and academic skills that can be particularly hard to replicate outside of the classroom. When I asked Emory if she liked being out of school for so long, she gave me an emphatic thumbs down.
But those of us whose children are thriving outside the classroom and who are lucky enough to have the time and resources to contemplate home-schooling have difficult decisions to make.
When there's a vaccine or herd immunity, things will eventually return to "normal." But for our children, was normal wrong all along?