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Excited students and their nervous parents faced the first day of school in Shelby County on Monday. 
(From left) Courtesy of Rodney Royston, Deidra Hawkins, and Lydia Crivens

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Memphis parents rehearse COVID protocols and pray as students go back to school

Karla Mayes Miller packed a note in her children’s lunchbox to remind them that they are loved.

She prayed for them as they turned down the street leading to the school.

And before they left the car, she reminded them to “make good choices.”

Like in years past, Miller’s children woke up excited about the first day of classes for Shelby County Schools, but Miller admitted that Monday’s reopening amid the pandemic brought more nerves than usual for her.

“We’ve been talking about this day for weeks with the kids — about what to expect and the protocols I want them to adhere to throughout the day to remain safe,” she said. “This was my first grader’s first time attending school in person, and she told me she was excited. … She was mainly ready to meet her new teacher and make new friends. My oldest was the same.”

Mixed emotions swirled in Memphis area households, as parents, caregivers, and their children welcomed the first day of classes at most local schools. The latest phase in the ongoing pandemic finds parents grappling with the more contagious delta variant of COVID, which is hospitalizing an increasing number of children while other emerging variants loom in the background.

School officials hope for the district’s first full year of in-person classes since the 2018-19 school year. Memphis public schools buildings were closed the longest in the state, not opening for in-person classes until March. Even then, about two-thirds of Shelby County Schools students opted to learn from home. On Monday, many of those virtual learners returned to the classroom with their nervous parents watching.

Parenting in a pandemic is the sobering reality of rehearsing safety protocols while trying to protect the magic of first days and new class friendships, even if those classmates have different approaches to pandemic safety.

“We have practiced what to do when someone gets too close,” said Deidra Hawkins, mother of a Memphis area first grader.

“We, as parents, have to do our part at home — talk to our children, go over the rules, role-play, and make sure we are all on the same page to ensure safety for everyone,” she added.

Hawkins said her daughter’s school has been “extremely accessible and accommodating” throughout the summer, communicating the latest news, including the countywide masks in schools mandate that the Shelby County Health Department issued on Friday.

While she encourages mask-wearing to reduce the spread of the virus, she hopes that parents who disagree with the mandate come together to work with administrators, teachers, and students.

“We are on the same team for their education and safety,” she said. “It’s not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with the decision but working as one team.”

Like Miller’s children, Hawkins’ daughter was relatively unfazed by the safety measures. Other matters were top of mind.

“She wants to eat in the cafeteria and play on the playground,” said Hawkins. “My little one was ready for her big girl experience.”

The first grader was also ready for another “big girl” experience, joining her cousins around the family piano for the annual first-day-of-school group photo. After that tradition, the adventures of first grade awaited.

Before her daughter got out of the car, Hawkins said she gave her one last pep talk: “Stay prayerful, do your best, listen to your teacher, and always show love to everyone.”

In Pew’s latest Religious Landscape Study, more than 78% of Tennessee adults surveyed said that they believe in God, and in a region that’s deeply religious, many parents are praying for protection this school year amid a swirl of uncertainty.

“We prayed this morning before leaving the house. We prayed for the students, teachers, administrators, and all staff in the schools. We prayed for a fun and safe school year for everyone,” said Lydia Crivens whose daughter started middle school on Monday.

Prayers also flowed from the Royston household as neighboring DeSoto County Schools in Mississippi, where there is not a mask mandate, started class on Thursday.

Rodney Royston said that the family celebrated his daughter’s first day of second grade last week with dinner and a reminder of expectations.

“We discussed how her day went, and reinforced expected behaviors pertaining to pandemic protocols such as keeping her mask on, washing and sanitizing her hands throughout the day, and keeping her hands to herself,” he said. “She’s the type of kid where you give her instructions and restrictions, and she finds a way to navigate through them without complaint.”

He added that although this school year feels much different to him, and his mind has wandered through countless of “what-if scenarios,” his daughter is simply ready for a normal school year.

“I’d imagine that older students returning back to school during a pandemic may have a tougher time adjusting to the new norms of school,” he said. “Luckily for Blake, this is no new norm for her. It’s just the norm.”

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