Sophie’s Choice: The Back-to-School Edition

By Melissa Stefanec

It’s back-to-school season, but September 2020 has parents weighing more complicated things than school-supply budgets and first-day outfits. We parents are faced with a proverbial Sophie’s choice. defines a Sophie’s choice scenario as one, “where no outcome is preferable over the other. This can be either because both outcomes are equally desirable, or both are equally undesirable.” I think we know which camp 2020 falls into.

Set down your stones — School districts faced tough choices and formulated plans they hoped would meet their students’ educational and safety needs. None of the in-school, virtual and hybrid learning plans are particularly appealing, because, how could they be?

No one could be truly happy with any of these terrible options. So, many parents have joined the moan-and-complain brigade. Instead of asking pointed and helpful questions, many parents have resorted to insults and pettiness.

Before we start casting the proverbial stones through classroom windows, we have to be honest with ourselves. School districts assembled reopening plans from a hodge-podge of terrible options. Did we expect them to shine the brown stuff for us?

What’s all the rukus about? — Everyone is stressed out, and rightfully so. Parents are navigating unknown seas without so much as starlight. We are facing some tough decisions. There is no shortage of complications. For example, can we keep our jobs and facilitate our children’s virtual educations? Can we make hybrid learning work from a logistics standpoint?

Can we afford to work outside the home at the expense of our children’s education? Can we afford to lose income? Can we trust our children to be home alone and navigate virtual learning? Can we work remotely while children attend school remotely?

Will our children go hungry without school meals? Will we be able to pick up the free meals offered by our school? Can we afford the internet needed for virtual learning? Can our children get the vital academic services they need while remote? Can we replace the jobs we lost during the recession if we have to drop off our kids at 8:30 and pick them up again at 1:30?

And, most importantly, is it safe for our children to go back? Should they ride the bus? Should they go to daycare? How do we know the schools can enforce the sorts of policies that keep people safe? Are we endangering our children to stay afloat on our mortgages? Are we endangering the vulnerable people in our lives by sending children back?

The worries are seemingly endless and the variables many. So, in the face of all this chaos, we try to find the right answer. However, “the right” thing is extraordinarily relative right now. Most people don’t have the resources to “choose” low-risk options.

The under-resourcing of the American family — Without deep financial means, navigating the upcoming school year is going to be a cluster. Depending on your family’s resources and circumstances, this year will be varying degrees of challenging. American families are finding themselves where much of corporate America has been since the great recession — too much to do and not enough bodies to do it.

Most families will settle on a plan that makes them uncomfortable at best. We will watch families around us do the same. Making these choices will likely lead to many parents’ favorite pastime—casting judgment on each other.

Taking the judge out of judgment call ­— Although Disney+ made a big impression this year, 2020’s actual plotline looks more like something penned by the Brothers Grimm. This year, parents are deciding how large of a club Little Red Riding Hood should carry (or if we should even be sending her to Grandma’s house in the first place).

So, in a year full of judgment calls and potentially serious repercussions, can we do each other a favor? Can we extend compassion to one another? In a world so heavily lacking in respect and empathy, can we not look down our noses?

Admit what you don’t know — When we feel like we want to judge another family, which we inevitably will, we have to practice maturity and restraint. We know so little about the inner workings of others lives and our school districts’ operations. We owe it to ourselves and our children to preach compassion from our parental pulpits. Everyone is doing the best they can with what they have.

Help others — make a better 2021    Mr. Rogers told a generation of young children to “look for the helpers.” In 2020, and beyond, adults have to muster the courage to be the helpers. That way, our children don’t have to look very far. Whether that’s helping inside our homes, within our families, within our communities or beyond, us parents can gain a lot from not focusing on ourselves. We can find a new purpose and become gamechangers in a difficult time.

For most of us, things aren’t so bad that we can’t do small things to make a world a better place. If we want to escape the narratives of the Brothers Grimm and turn our world into a storyline worthy of a Disney film, we have to help each other out of the wolf’s mouth.