One day, our grandkids and great-grandkids will ask our children, “What was it like wearing a mask to school every day?”

What I Will Remember

After nearly two years of mask mandates, in March, most California students returned to unmasked learning, and I’m so curious: How will this generation look back on this era? What will they remember about academic life during COVID-19?

I imagine my family, decades from now, gathered around the table at Thanksgiving, recalling the COVID years. I’ll bring up how at four years old, my daughter could not yet count to 20, but she could correctly say and use the words vaccine, coronavirus, quarantine and pandemic. I’ll tell about the time her teacher asked students to name something they were thankful for, and she shared, “hand sanitizer.”

My first grader’s “Living History” performance will spring to mind as well. On this day, her class came to school dressed as U.S. icons and historical figures, ready to recite lines in front of a packed auditorium. For many of these six and seven-year-olds, it was their first time on a stage, and it felt bittersweet that they would be meeting this milestone in a mask. When the show began, a boy dressed as Ben Franklin strode to the microphone. Between his Revolutionary War hat and a ruffled scarf, he wore a Baby Yoda mask. It seemed all the parents in the audience noticed his mask at the same moment, and we all broke into a collective grin. Up next was Rosa Parks. Her mask—covered in unicorns and donuts—was even more outlandish. Then we heard from a bald eagle and the Statue of Liberty in tie-dye masks, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a fluorescent cheetah-print mask.

In masks that clashed so wildly with their carefully constructed costumes, here were our first graders—stretching themselves, overcoming their nerves, doing their best work, and putting on a show.

What Kids Remember

When I ask my kids to tell me their best memories from the school year, I’m struck by how normal they all sound: Getting across the monkey bars without any help. Painting and using pastels. Going upside down on the jungle gym. Becoming a chapter book reader. Being with my friends. 

These memories, constructed from the hallmarks and rhythms of a “typical” school year, are a testament to the high caliber of our teachers, administrators and staff. The ones who worked tirelessly to reconfigure and reimagine everything from recess, to assemblies, to annual school events. Who lost sleep keeping up with ever-changing variants and guidelines, and agonized over decisions, knowing that either way would result in unsatisfied parents.

I think of all the terrain covered in masks, and the progress made, not just despite them, but also because of them. Wearing masks forced us to look each other in the eye more, which is something I’d been on my kids’ case about since long before COVID.

At Christmastime, I wrote in a card for one of the campus supervisors at my child’s school, “Thank you for greeting my daughter every morning with a smile.” As I handed her the card, I realized I’d never seen this woman without a mask. Technically, I’d never seen her smile. Yet through her warm words and kind actions, her smile was her most notable feature. A mask couldn’t cover it up.

Forge Ahead

When students in Ventura County schools look back on this 2021-2022 year, they’ll never forget all the masked faces. But those images will be eclipsed, I’m certain, by the friendships formed, the art projects, the class turtle they cared for, and the pride over the knowledge and skills they acquired. This year, we learned that while it was a nuisance to have to strap on a face covering every morning, doing so did not cause the system to fail. There is always a way forward, and this year, thanks to the grit and creativity of our educators, we watched our kids forge ahead.

school kids

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Ashlee grew up in Newbury Park, and returned to the area after studying journalism at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and teaching English in Santiago, Chile for two years. She spent three years as a working mom, before leaving the corporate world to become a full-time, at-home parent. Her daughters are 5 and 6 years old, and she relishes getting to experience her old childhood stomping grounds through their eyes. An Enneagram 4, Ashlee enjoys reading, running, music, collecting vintage fashion magazines, and sharing a fun cocktail with her husband after work while their kids sit/jump beside them on the couch and watch "Pinkalicious." She is a whole-hearted believer that “it takes a village” not only to raise a child, but also to raise a mother. She is grateful for a supportive family, friends, and community, and is passionate about the power of writing to connect us and let us know we’re not alone.


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