Unpacking Back to School

by Joshua

Weeks ago, I committed myself to writing a story about going back to school in Fall 2021, and how back to school in Fall 2021 is going to be about something we’ve never experienced before. Because, you know, the pandemic.

I began by doing what you do when you have a lot of personal experience with a subject matter but you aren’t an expert. No, you don’t talk louder (like a certain relative of mine, I love you but you know who you are). You learn more about it.

My learning curve began by reading about the different ways governmental entities are structuring and funding COVID-19 relief. I consumed all kinds of rhetoric, political and otherwise. I read the writings of experts, which helped me better understand pedagogy and academic readiness principles. I talked with academic professionals and parents about their boots-on-the-ground strategies as well as their hopes and concerns.

All this information consumption left me with one big question.

What have I done?

What have I done, committing myself to write ONE story about the complexities of going back to school in Fall 2021? One BOOK wouldn’t be enough! What am I doing, trying to write about a fixed moment in time before it happens? There’s so much that could happen between now and the first weeks of school, between the Delta variant, our state’s reticence for mask mandates, and our wildly varied views on vaccinations.

If only I could speak with the world’s greatest authorities on the pandemic, but they just need a little more time to process. They are in grade school right now, living through it.


“I’m worried that my child has fallen behind and can’t catch up.”
“I just want things to get back to normal.”
“I’m worried that it is not safe to return to in-person classes.”
“My kid’s got to get out of the house.”

Sound familiar?

Photo by Gara Hill.
Photo by Gara Hill.

I love this photo so much. While I was researching and writing, Nadia and her girls became my spirit animals. A family that laughs together is going to be alright.

A family that unexpectedly home schools together, however, is an experience most parents are eager to put in their past. But like me undertaking this story, hasn’t the pandemic taught us that “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over?” And it’s far from over. Because even if we never again have to pivot to remote classrooms, it will take a while for the aftershocks to settle.

About those aftershocks: let’s get one thing straight. Everyone has got to let go of the guilt. You did your best. You really did.

Sandy McNutt agrees. Long-time principal of Wood Elementary in Arlington, Sandy is now the Head of the Lower School at Trinity Valley School in Ft. Worth.

“We have to remember we’re all in the same slow boat together,” said Sandy, “Educators know it always takes about three weeks until everyone knows it’s going to be OK. And it will be.”

It might take a little longer than three weeks in Fall 2021, but the principle is the same because the entire educational system has a reset button built right in.

“At the beginning of every school year,” said Sandy, “children start over. Every single year. And every year I remind myself, ‘What does it feel like to come back to something brand new every year?’ New teachers, new classroom, and a new curriculum. How is this year that much different? Yes, it will take more time to reestablish what’s important, and I’m not just talking about rules. But it will happen.”

So, what IS important?


In a word, community.

“Our number one priority this year is how we can be a community again,” said Sandy. “For over a year, for example, our parents couldn’t come in the building. That reflects a humongous amount of trust, which is fundamental to rebuilding relationships.”

Individual people building trust builds relationships. Interrelationships between people who trust each other builds community.

According to Jennifer Cummings, SCE Support Interventionist at Bailey Junior High in Arlington, there’s only one place you can begin.

“We must meet people where they are,” she said.

Boy, that speaks to me. I think if we are to meet people where they are, it becomes essential to start by understanding our own points of view, concerns, and biases.

Where am I? I’m the daughter of parents who were the first generation in their families to attend college. I liked school, and my friends liked school. My three sisters had successful careers in K-12 schools. I don’t have kids, but for over two decades, I worked at universities in various communications roles because it felt more like supporting a cause than a job.

That’s me. Where are you?

In her 40-year career, Sandy has built relationships with all kinds of people from all walks of life, but she did admit the challenges of the pandemic have been the toughest of her career. Even in the tensest moments of passionately opposing opinions, Sandy still remained clear on at least one essential truth.

“Nobody is doing what they’re doing because they’re spiteful,” said Sandy. “Which means there’s no room for judgment in this conversation.”

Nobody on the planet wants to be misjudged, yet we all make judgments every day for all kinds of reasons, including (perhaps especially) fearing the unknown. I’m not a person who is typically fearful, but I’m exhausted from the amount of practice I’ve had in recent years. The last thing I want – for myself or anyone – is for a fearful practice to become perfected. Instead of letting fears push us apart, maybe a commitment to the practice of nonjudgment can inch us closer to one another again.


If building community starts with building trust, then trust-building starts with communication.

Some of my friends and I have shared with each other that our pandemic experiences opened our eyes to certain truths. Reset priorities. Uncovered cracks in the foundations of some relationships. Broken our hearts. Revealed inner strengths that were previously unknown. We believe we are wiser in ways that matter.

When communication is done in the spirit of learning wisdom from one another, it can transcend bad habits like snap judgments. Of course the world will continue to serve up set-backs, fears or frustrations — like the STAAR test or, God forbid, a crisis level that again forces school closures. But communication that respects the wisdom of the other person maximizes our kids’ chances of success.

“In education, you don’t get to the finish line alone,” said Sandy of the STAAR test, and everything, really. “Teachers are highly motivated to give kids what they need, and in the end, rarely are kids not successful.”


Educators have developed a term for the process of helping a student holistically move from pandemic isolation into an in-person community that nurtures academic success: “Reintegration.”

“Reintegration applies to every aspect of learning readiness, including social, emotional and physical wellness,” said Jennifer. “Understanding the needs of each and every child in these areas will be so important as we work toward reaching their academic goals. The great thing is, this is exactly what teachers are trained for and know how to do.”

heavy backpack girl gif.gif

Imagine this classic back-to-school sight gag as an epic metaphor, one that represents the vastly different burdens students are carrying as they head back to school this Fall.

Educators are well aware of the myriad concerns as they plan for the 2021-22 school year. They’re already getting calls from worried parents about the STAAR test. As policymakers continue to grapple with economic realities, teachers around the world and close to home are voicing strong concerns about vaccination rates, the Delta variant, and reductions in masking and social distancing practices (in May, Governor Abbott barred mask mandates in schools).

Heavy on the mind of educators is the spiraling toll on the overall well-being of every child and adult involved in the life of their school. Adding to the complexity are the heartbreaking issues associated with an increase in disparity between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children and their families. Another is the widely-reported increase in domestic violence.

This is one enormous metaphor of a backpack to unpack.

It’s useful to understand that some help is already on the way. Through federally-funded pandemic relief measures like the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, the State of Texas has allocated grants to school districts and higher education institutions to help address the educational impact of COVID-19. This translates into much-needed instructional coaches and behavioral specialists in every K-12 school. Additionally, each campus has discretionary funding for resources like tutors who focus on Tier One instruction or gap-filling.

But as Sandy McNutt and Jennifer Cummings taught me, being in the same slow boat together as a community will matter most in the long run.

For example, you may have noticed the Junior League of Arlington (JLA) took over our InstaGratitude section this month. We wanted to highlight their commitment to servant leadership, including their dedication to the community-wide 2021 AISD Back to School Kick Off on August 7. This massive drive-through event is gearing up to serve a record number 10,000 children in need of backpacks, age-appropriate school supplies, and free health screenings and services.

Jennifer, who coincidentally is also president of JLA, said the Kick Off really helps level the playing field going into Fall.

“This time last year, we were seeing a lot of financial impact from the pandemic,” said Jennifer, “and we expect the same this year. To serve these critical needs, we’re going back to square-one fundamentals: involve more partners so we can serve more people; provide a safe experience for families and volunteers; and create meaningful connections with families through one-to-one interaction.”


To sum up so far: with Community-building as the goal, Reintegration provides us resources and structure to frame the process. Communication gives us a voice and a vehicle for solving problems in an ever-changing world.

In my conversation with Sandy, she suggested one more piece to complete the puzzle.

“We know we’re not going to just pick up where we left off,” said Sandy. “During quarantine, different children experienced different amounts of unstructured alone time. There will be a period of assessment for every child so we can understand where they really are. Then we’ll go from there.”

Going from there, she explained, is the process of rebuilding Stamina.

In a young child, stamina means sharing, taking turns, and standing in a line. Stamina is patience. Stamina can also be built through exercising independence (finding a classroom without mom’s help) or taking on responsibilities (feeding a pet every day). In a young adult, stamina means pulling your weight in group projects, participating in discussions, taking notes throughout class, and finishing assignments.

Stamina does not mean sitting at a computer for five hours. Instead, real stamina is when the brain remains malleable and lit through proportional amounts of structure and play, discoveries and mastery, movement and stillness.

Clearly the benefits of building stamina aren’t just for school-aged children. Shoot, if I mindfully integrated structure, play, discoveries, mastery, movement, and stillness into every single day, my stress would plummet and my productivity would go through the roof.


The last thing I want to say as I write this last paragraph is that I am terribly biased. I’m biased toward the powers of education. I’m biased toward the probability of positive outcomes when groups of diverse people earnestly try to find win-win scenarios. I’m biased toward the idea that new normals – when they are built with intention by communities – are better than the old ones.

Who gets the final word on the 2021-22 school year? Let’s throw it back to Jennifer Cummings.

“We just really need to love on everybody. A lot.”

Contributor’s note: Several educators shared great tips for a strong start to a new school year. I decided to turn them into an infographic. Not surprisingly, every one ties back to great communication and building community:

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