As we near the end of another July, I recall the sights, sounds and smells that have always signaled me that school will be starting up again soon. Ambiguous feelings of dread and excitement accompanied those signs that there wasn’t much left of summer freedom.

This year is different, though. With about a month to go until September, we still don’t know if school will reopen, and this is unprecedented. For centuries we always knew, but not this year.

The sun set furthest to the northwest on the horizon over a month ago during the summer solstice. Each evening light show is now pulling back westward a little more during each twilight. Roughly circular webs spun by ground spiders appear covered with dew each morning on the lawn. A few wood vine leaves along the roadside have started turning read. It won’t be too long before we’ll see them completely crimson on utility poles and on the trunks of white pines. Certain ferns are turning yellow in my back field.

Dandelions and daffodils are a memory, having long ago returned to the soil from which they sprang. Barely-detected scents of other early-decaying vegetation send hints to my nose. Summer is still verdant but the awareness that, like the sunsets, it is ever-so-slightly past peak is upon me.

Corn stalks are very high in the fields and we’ll be eating fresh corn on the cob soon. Normally, we will have felt an early autumn chill evenings and early mornings by this time of the summer, but not this year. It’s been consistently hot with much humidity if not enough rain.

Meanwhile, a politicized mainstream media is simultaneously playing up fear of COVID-19 and playing down continuing violence at Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Democratic governors are consequently extending COVID restrictions on businesses, country fairs, parades and other community events, but they’ve punted to local school districts on the decision about opening schools in September. With just over a month until Labor Day, neither parents nor students nor teachers know whether to, or how to, prepare.

If schools do reopen, they probably won’t resemble schools as we remember them. There may be split sessions. There may be a combination of real, in-person school and virtual school with Zoom classes. Despite the extremely low incidence of COVID in children anywhere, fear of the virus has become so widespread in the mask-wearing public that local school officials are afraid to make definitive rulings. Whichever way they decide, they’re going to face backlash from one side or the other in a polarized citizenry and school administrators have never been known for their courage.

Nearly all students in rural New England ride buses, but how kids can socially distance on a traditional school bus is difficult to imagine. Will they have to spread out so much that two or three times as many bus routes will become necessary? And what about kids in classrooms? Will they have to sit so far apart that double or triple sessions will be required? What will these changes mean for school budgets in a year when revenues are way down? We just don’t know.

We’re not seeing as many back-to-school-sale advertisements for clothing and school supplies as we’d become accustomed to. Is that because of all the uncertainty about schools reopening? Probably. And what about after-school activities like football practice or soccer practice, or cross-country practice?

It looks like they’re not going to happen even if schools themselves do reopen. Parents who planned to go back to work at whatever businesses government has allowed to reopen will have to pay babysitters or daycare centers if their children cannot attend school.

Those services are expensive. How many parents will decide after a cost/benefit analysis that it’s just not worth it to work? What will that do to the businesses that have managed to avoid bankruptcy after four months of government-imposed COVID shutdown?

No, this isn’t normal. My entire life has been strongly affected by the school calendar, first as a student for 18 years — including undergrad and grad school — then as a teacher for 36 years.

Though I retired from teaching nine years ago, I still felt those familiar, late-summer promptings described above. I could relax when the school buses drove past my house at 7 every morning because I didn’t have to rush in myself anymore, and I could still attend school sports functions and other activities in which my grandchildren participated.

Not this year, though. It’s sad, very sad, and entirely unnecessary.

Tom McLaughlin lives in Lovell, Maine. He can be reached on his website at tommclaughlin.blogspot.com.

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