BY: CLAIRE MULLEN
Back-to-school is a ritual of sorts for children and parents alike. For my family, it has become tradition since the early preschool days for each of our two kids to make a rare and much-anticipated solo Target run with mom to purchase their school supplies.
This momentous occasion is the one time a year that I say “yes” to a stop at the Icee machine. I allow my little shoppers to sneak in a few novelty items like fuzzy llama keychains, neon sparkle gel pens and tongue tattoo Fruit Roll-ups for cafeteria dessert.
Last August, when we were all blissfully unaware of what 2020 would have in store for us, I marveled at the fact that for the first time, my daughter could read some of the items from her list all by herself.
I proudly stood by and observed while she perused the shelves of spiral-bound notebooks and bins of crayons with the focus and attention of a neurosurgeon. And as she checked off each item with a pink highlighter as she carefully placed her kindergarten supplies in our big red cart.
As always, we left the store, cotton candy Icee in hand, feeling prepared and excited for the year to come.
And then came 2020.
This year, in a Herculean effort to make back-to-school feel as normal as possible in the most abnormal of times, my rising first-grader and I masked up and made our annual Target trek. We left the house early in the morning to avoid the typical afternoon rush, and the store’s “one in/one out” crowd-control protocol that ensues.
The difference was palpable, as my daughter, all too aware of the current state of pandemic affairs, trailed closely behind me, careful not to touch anything, as we zig-zagged around the store, making sure to follow the arrows, in search of hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes.
I imagine that we looked a bit like squirrels do when they attempt to cross a busy street. I could see the disappointment in her eyes (and can assure you her lip was trembling under her My Little Pony face covering), when she noticed that the typically spinning Icee dispenser was roped off and empty.
We did an about-face at the fitting rooms with an armful of twirly skirts in several sizes when we realized that they, too, were off limits.
Our spirits lifted when we scored the last remaining bottle of our favorite hand sanitizer. “YES! The good kind!” my daughter exclaimed.
I had to agree, as we each misted our palms with the fancy spray, that I, too, much preferred its mild, beachy scent to the Eau de Grey Goose that we usually settle for.
As we headed for the socially distanced labyrinth of a checkout line, we passed the aisle of character-themed lunch boxes. A Marvel superhero tote caught the eye of my Spiderman-obsessed preschooler.
“Mommy! Can we get this for Bubba? He is going to love it!”
“Not this time, sweetie. He can’t have it,” I had to say, as I remembered his preschool’s new disposable-lunch-bag-until-further-notice policy. My 6-year-old big girl woefully put the container back in its place on the shelf and said, “Because of Coronavirus, right?”
Yes, because of Coronavirus. I find myself repeating this countless times a day.
Because of Coronavirus, back-to-school allowances for Pinterest-inspired things like framed chalkboards used as first-day photo props, apple-appliqued attire and thoughtful teacher gifts have been re-allocated for miniature face masks and little clip-on personal bottles of Purell for those children who will return to school, and bright and cheery makeshift at-home learning space items for the rest who will begin the year virtually.
Because of Coronavirus, many students must settle for a welcome phone call from their new teacher, in lieu of an in-person “get to know you” along with a class full of new friends. Because of Coronavirus, scholar-athletes and their fans will surely miss the smell of freshly mown grass and the glow of Friday night lights that have always gone hand-in-hand with the start of the academic year.
Because of Coronavirus, parents everywhere, who have spent their summers obsessing over each and every contradicting COVID-related news article, are simply at a loss. They are wondering how they will ever pull off the seemingly impossible juggling act of reliable employee, devoted parent and involved virtual learning supervisor.
Because of Coronavirus, our beloved schoolteachers, staff and administrators adapt and move forward as best as they can, while the general public continues to debate the importance of their well-being.
Yes, all this because of Coronavirus.
During these unprecedented times, when “back-to-school” feels a little more like “forward-into-battle,” we have to remember that we are all allies. When we can’t give a hug, we can give some grace. To our kiddos, to our employees, to our teachers, to ourselves.
When it seems like we may live the rest of our existence in a perpetual Phase 2, we can look to the future with hope.
There will be out-the-door juice boxes, Pop-Tarts and kisses goodbye as the big yellow bus rounds the corner.
There will be packed stands for Friday evening football games.
There will be weekend park playdates.
There will be unlimited Clorox wipes.
And yes, the Target Icee machine will spin again.
Until then, best back-to-school wishes for the home schoolers, the masking-uppers and the logging-inners. Best wishes for everyone.
Claire Mullen can be reached at