JEDDAH: It was a first day back at school like no other.
After 18 months of home education and online learning forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, children throughout the Kingdom returned to the classroom on Sunday.
There was laughter and tears — and not a little chaos.
Refal Amin, a Saudi mother of two teenage sons and a 10-year-old daughter, told Arab News that it was difficult seeing her two boys head off to school while leaving their sister behind at home.
Amin’s daughter must stay home to attend online learning, following instructions issued by the Saudi Education Ministry.
“My sons were initially hesitant to go, even though they’re both fully vaccinated. It was still unsettling for them to leave home, and it was a struggle getting them up and out of the house, which was nothing new,” she said.
But despite their outward display of hesitancy, the two boys were glad to see their friends at school again. “We just had to pretend that we weren’t happy for our little sister and we decided to play the part of sad students,” said the eldest, Abdullah. “I know mom secretly sensed our glee to go back.”
Amin said: “It has been a tough year and a half, and it’ll be even longer and tougher for my youngest, who is simply unamused today.
“We’re super careful; this isn’t a joke. The boys know there will be no hugging, no touching and no sharing anything. Though I have to also keep my eye on my daughter and prepare for my day’s work, it’s a relief that I can work from home.
“My daughter doesn’t share my sentiment as a frown was plastered on her face throughout the day. First impressions last, but apparently all the girls in her class were frowning and upset as well. They’ll get over it soon enough.”
As I write this, my eight-year-old daughter started her first day of the third grade in tears. After an 18-month hiatus, she was looking forward to the possibility of seeing her new school, but of course, COVID-19, which has been dubbed “the dream crusher,” postponed her return to in-person learning — and what a day it was.
Like parents everywhere, I prepared my daughter for what to expect, and found that the “no sharing” rule was a deal breaker, or at least I thought it was until she heard that the school canteen would not be open and that she would not be able to stealthily buy a piece of chocolate.
She understands the severity of the COVID-19 situation, but it broke her heart to learn that she would not be attending school just yet following a last-minute decision by the school board. I was crushed, too. Like millions of parents out there, I want a pause, and it presents one of the thorniest problems.
But rules are rules, and we will wait a bit longer.
Though we should be used to it by now, the chaotic first day started with confusion: Links to the online platforms did not work, passcodes were not shared and dozens of messages from mothers were sent to the class WhatsApp group. It left me at a loss and suffering from a nagging headache, on top of having to juggle my other tasks at work.
The first day’s roller coaster ride left us parents and school admins tired and exhausted by midday.
Though usually cheery and bright, the little one was moody, down and her shoulders slumped, yet she dressed for the occasion and looked her best. By midday, she grew frustrated and burst into tears, refusing to attend any more classes due to the back and forth between mothers and teachers trying to join the ranks.
No amount of bribing or promises worked. That was the case with many parents today, with children left confused about how they feel attending yet another semester online.
Do children still like cotton candy soft-serve ice cream? Asking for a friend.
That is not to say that school admins and teachers are not working overtime to fix the login issues and help students feel welcome. Hats off to the thousands of teachers out there working tirelessly to make everyone’s first day back a good one.
“It’s not all sunshine and rainbows for our family, but my daughter’s teachers have made her first day back a great one,” said 39-year-old Heidi Al-Majed, a stay-at-home mother of two.
Al-Majed never expected the first day to go down this way. Just last Thursday, her three-year-old son tested positive for COVID-19, with the rest of the family soon following suit, except for her nine year old, Ameera.
“I gave a heads up to her supervisor that I had been infected and that thankfully, Ameera hadn’t. But I did the right thing as they took responsibility to care for her throughout the day.
“Each teacher called to remind Ameera to join a scheduled class and her upper-primary school supervisor checked if she ate her breakfast and lunch, and even went as far as arranging an online lunch break with her classmates joining for a girly chat, as if they were in a real lunch break,” she told Arab News.
Though it is not all fun and games, nor all doom and gloom, this school year is undoubtedly one for the books. Parents, prepare your survival kits. It is going to be a while.