Back to school has been mostly normal for us. It hasn’t been for others.

Our 8-year-old pulled a surgical-style mask out of her backpack after school Tuesday.

Her “necklace mask,” as she called it, consisted of tiny rubber bands she’d braided together and attached to each end of the mask’s elastic straps.

Our daughter Parlie’s “necklace mask.”

“So it stays around your neck when you’re not using it,” she said, slipping it over her head and skipping off to her bedroom.

Necklace mask? I thought. Not your typical classroom project.

Then again, 2020’s not a typical year. Like many of you, the coronavirus has reshaped my family’s situation in numerous ways, from toilet paper shortages in March to a six-month summer vacation with the kids — sans the vacation part.

So my wife, Nicki, and I were surprised when our three daughters’ recent return to their elementary school wasn’t as abnormal as we’d anticipated.

I shared our experience last week and watched as reaction on Facebook reinforced how utterly atypical back-to-school 2020-21 has been for so many Idaho families.

“Where are these kids even from?” Courtney Lynch, a fourth grade teacher in the Treasure Valley, asked in reference to our children’s return to school.

Another parent put it more bluntly: “East Idaho’s experience is sooooo dif than the Treasure Valley.”

Point well taken. We’re from Blackfoot, an East Idaho community where fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 compared to areas like the Treasure Valley have made way for in-person learning, with certain safety precautions in place.

Families throughout the Treasure Valley and other communities have had to weather a global pandemic while trying to tackle remote learning.

And that’s been tough for many working parents.

And for kids.

“My third grader feels bored and isolated doing online school,” Boise parent Chryssa Rich wrote in response to our daughters’ experience returning to school. “It doesn’t even feel like school to him.”

Uncertainty about the collective effort to slow the virus accompanies the struggle for parents like Rich. “I really hope that Ada County residents can stay on this path of decreasing cases so we can go back to school,” she said.

That could happen in the coming weeks for many families in the  Treasure Valley, where the area’s biggest districts are revisiting plans, based on local health district recommendations, that could allow kids back into classrooms.

But uncertainty doesn’t end once kids are back in school.

Since schools in our health district returned in recent weeks, three of eight area counties — Bear Lake, Caribou and Power — have gone from a minimal to a moderate risk level for transmission of COVID-19. Leaders in Butte County last week designated the community a high-risk area.

Our district is still at a minimal risk for spread, local health officials say.

But who knows for how long.

Since allowing four days of in-person instruction in the last two weeks, at least one student has tested positive for COVID-19. Six others are now in quarantine, according to our superintendent.

What happens when kids return full-time starting this week?

With our girls each still learning to read to at least some degree, we’re hopeful they can keep going.

The Bodkins: Nayvie, Nicki, Parlie, Devin, Emerie
Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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