As a mother of three school-age children and a teacher of 20 years, I can tell you there is no decision I can make regarding returning or not returning to school that feels right to me. Like the rest of the world, as September looms on the horizon, I’m faced with the realization that COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere, nor does it intend to go anywhere until scientists find a drug, vaccine, or treatment option that can be made widely available to the masses. 

Understanding this new reality means coming to terms with the fact that every teacher and parent in our country must now make one of the hardest decisions of their lives: deciding whether or not schools can be safe, sterile places for ourselves and our children to congregate while this pandemic rages on. 

We can go back and forth on this debate until a cure’s found, but this isn’t what’s bothering me. Whether parents and caregivers decide to send kids back or continue to learn remotely, whether teachers decide to return or choose to teach online, these decisions are personal and reflect others’ beliefs, needs, and life situations that have nothing to do with me. 

What does concern me is the amount of judgement I’ve seen hurled at parents and teachers for making either of these tough decisions. 

Can we please, please stop assuming that we know what’s right for everyone? And more to the point, can we come to a truce that doesn’t involve shaming people for their life choices? 

When it comes to taking safety precautions, yes, we should encourage adults who are putting others at risk to heed expert advice. But when it comes to preaching to parents to “Suck it up and keep your kids home,” or, “Suck it up and send your kids back,” or telling teachers to “Suck it up and be an essential worker,” we’re going about this new normal all wrong.

“Suck it up, buttercup” has all of the emotional effectiveness of an umbrella in a hurricane. Not only does it not hold up in a stiff wind — it sucks. People shouldn’t be shamed for doing what’s right for themselves and their families.

This means that for some, returning to school is the lesser of two evils. For others, staying home makes the most sense.

Whether individuals have secondary health conditions or other social, emotional, and financial burdens to consider, why do we assume that families who send their children back must want to get rid of them? Or that conversely, by keeping kids home they’re poo-pooing school and stunting their children’s academic, social, and emotional growth? 

It’s this same “either/or” thinking that’s especially damning for teachers like myself right now. Why promote the idea that educators who teach remotely don’t care about their students while those who head back into the fray are instant frontline heroes? 

Please, don’t misunderstand me. Of course it’s heroic to go back, but it’s also our job. Can’t we see that nobody wins by this reductionist thinking? 

People are not smart or foolish, hypochondriacal or healthy, hardworking or lazy based on how they decide to move forward. We are who we are because of the way we conduct ourselves, how we treat others, and what we choose to give our energy to. How is it productive or personally relevant to criticize parents and teachers for doing what they think is best for them?

It isn’t. 

But, as a parent and teacher, I can tell you what is: having conversations with my spouse, doctor, children’s doctor, children, parents, spouse’s parents, children’s friends’ parents, sister, colleagues, friends, and the list goes on. Being able to discuss the pros and cons with other stakeholders in my and my children’s health has helped me find what seems to be the “most right” for us.

Also, researching information on the virus, staying informed, reading our district’s re-entry plan, emailing my principal questions when they pop into my head, remaining physically active, and praying (I’m not preaching — just being real) has helped center my thoughts and feelings during this crazy time.

At the end of the day, no one wants to bring this pandemic into their homes or carry this crisis to their loved ones’ front door. Maybe when we stop tearing others down and start supporting each other for how we choose to stay safe, we can start doing the real work that lays in front of us: saving lives.