VIRUS DIARY: Thanks to COVID, an 'anti-first day' of school

Forced to quarantine instead of attending the first days of school, Rylan, 10, Maddie, 3 and Amelia, 8, pose in Maplewood, N.J., Sept. 13, 2021, for an anti-back to school picture instead. Their mom, Associated Press editor Noreen Gillespie, decided to take the photo after her three kids were exposed to COVID and had to quarantine as their friends were going back to the classroom. (AP Photo/Noreen Gillespie) (Noreen Gillespie)

MAPLEWOOD, N.J. – Three days before the first day of school, a text message delivered the blow: the babysitter had exposed our three kids to COVID. Robotically, I began ticking through what the next several days would look like. Stocking up on Tylenol, and temperature checks. Hoping we get through another day without a spike. Tests on day five. Wondering if every sniffle is a symptom.

I know this routine well now. Pandemic parenting created it. A lack of vaccines for the youngest kids forces us to sustain it. I was staring down another pandemic pivot, and this one felt different. I am tired of pivoting. I am tired of figuring out how to make everyone resilient. And I had to say something out loud to these three.

It wasn’t just the first day. They would all miss the first two weeks of school.

On my social media feeds, the first day pictures keep coming. Kids in newly pressed, pleated uniforms with crisp white shirts. Middle schoolers posing in trendy new outfits. Fresh haircuts. New sparkly backpacks. Avengers lunch boxes. Unscuffed sneakers and smiles.

Our school shoes are still in their boxes. Our backpacks are packed, but there’s nowhere to go. Our uniforms still have their tags.

We are NOT smiling.

Text messages from the soccer and softball teams share scores of games we didn’t get to play. We wave at friends walking home from school through windows. I imagine kids sitting at COVID-shielded desks, writing “about me” essays and drawing self-portraits. Will they all go up on the wall, and will our kids be missing? Will they look up at that wall all year, remembering when the world moved on to fall while they were stuck in summer?

Three days pass, and we still haven’t heard from a teacher. “Don’t worry,” I’m told by the office. “Not much happens in the first few days of school anyway.”

So much does, though.

When our world stopped in March 2020, when daycare and school shut down and we parented and worked in parallel, there was adrenaline. A shutdown was different, and scary, but we were in it together. This time, we are shut down alone. And we are lonely.

The kids are experienced pandemic kids. They know the routines that make up their lives can evaporate in an instant. And as the days slog by, with no camp or school or friends, they begin to believe it is happening again. Their grief is showing.

It comes through in Maddie’s screams. The shrieks that interrupt a puzzle that was otherwise going well, or when she decides a hill is too much for her Frozen bicycle and her 3-year-old body. When we have mac and cheese instead of peanut butter and jelly, even though she asked for mac and cheese. When she wants to chalk on the driveway but can’t find the pink chalk. She asks several times a day what day it is. She draws on the walls again, like she did last March. “I’m sick today,” she tells me, except she isn’t. She wears her backpack to breakfast. And then she is screaming again, and this time I don’t know why.

It shows as Amelia puts on a brave face. Maddie is working on writing her name, and her 8-year-old sister volunteers to help. Amelia cuts out letters for her to draw on and arrange on the floor. She pretends she is the president of her very own iteration of the Baby-Sitters Club and is determined to do art lessons with her little sister. Maddie screams and runs away. “Maddie doesn’t listen to me,” she complains, then mopes. The only smile I can get from her is when I share a text from another mom with intel that two friends are in her class.

Rylan is the untouchable one, rarely affected by anything. He, more than the other two, had been ready for school. He worked for weeks to finish his three summer reading books, the hardest books he’s ever read. He spent four hours editing his essay before the first day. It sits unread, and his anxiety grows. He wants a good desk, one in the center of the classroom. Will he be stuck in the back? What day is gym? Who is in his class? He comes downstairs hours past bedtime, complaining that his eyes are flickering and he can’t sleep. We breathe. It doesn’t help. “Mom,” he says in a low voice. “What if Maddie has COVID and we have to be home for another 14 days?”

I do not have an answer.

On day 12, we have had enough. There will not be a traditional first day of school for us this year. The reality has set in, and we accept it. Almost.

I gather the kids and sit them on the porch steps, the same steps where we usually take our first day of school picture every year. We are taking an anti-first day of school picture, because that is our experience this year. They complain, just like they usually do.

“Show me how you feel about being stuck at home,” I coax. They giggle, for a second. Then they make monster faces. They frown. I think that one day, when they are flipping through family photos, they will tell the story of missing the first two weeks of school and how mom made them take a stupid picture anyway.

Sometimes, the best way to be resilient is not to be. So we sit with our anger, and wait for the day it passes or for quarantine to end. Whichever comes first.


Virus Diary, an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Noreen Gillespie is AP's deputy managing editor for U.S. news. Follow her on Twitter at