Even in August, the growing darkness of autumn silently approaches. Even after gloriously long days spent at the beach, the ever-earlier dusk surprises us. An ambush by an usually wintry wind presages the equinoctial gales to come.
For the children, this has been the longest summer. As soon as the schools were closed last March, so began one of the sunniest, driest springtimes on record. Those remarkably summery months, spent out of school, then melded into the regular summer break, thus creating the longest school holidays ever experienced by Irish schoolchildren.
Our youngest was only adjusting to junior infants, when her new school routine came to a juddering halt. Even the older kids seem to have almost forgotten what school is like. While they look forward to meeting friends, they express anxieties too. They wonder how social distancing restrictions might change their school day. They wonder if another lockdown might suddenly send them back to homeschool. They are wary of the coronavirus itself. They know it does not usually affect children badly, but they know that it is still circulating. They fear bringing it home to make others sick, especially their beloved grandparents.
The Taoiseach recently announced the return of more stringent restrictions – which immediately impacted our six year old’s birthday party. We parents cannot shield our children from these strange new realities. Their parties, playdates, clubs, hobbies and schooling have all been radically affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Many nowadays seem to simply ignore the government advice, but we follow it as best we can, not least since my wife works in the medical sphere, on the frontline.
The general fatigue with the coronavirus restrictions is now palpable. During our holidays in West Cork and Kerry, it seemed like everyone had also decided to take a holiday from the pandemic. There were pubs selling rounds of drink merrily and most of the restaurants had little or no meaningful social distancing in place. You can understand the need for businesses which had been shuttered for months to make hay while the sun shines. Jobs were on the line – yet tue problem is that the virus has also made hay.
I confess to wearying of the whole thing at times too, and perhaps subconsciously even wishing it away. While on holiday, more than once, the kids expressed their discomfort in a restaurant. I’d look at where we were sitting to notice that we were sharing a large table closely with another group, that all the dishes from the previous customers were still on the table and that we were sitting just a couple of feet from all the people passing in and out of the restaurant. In one way, it was good that the kids were alert, but it also saddened me that they had to be. Worst of all, their words betrayed their inner anxieties.
Our kids had cause to be more anxious than most, with their mother working in the hospital during the pandemic and treating patients with the virus, before coming home and decontaminating and then reading their bedtime stories. While we avoided letting the kids watch news bulletins, the older ones were surely aware of doctors and nurses in the UK and Italy dying from the virus. Kids are little detectives, and little spies – they pick up far more information than we want them to.
Since the lockdown ended, taking the kids out meant training them in using hand sanitiser and in social distancing. Yet, now, having drilled that into them, we adults are telling them to go back into school where there will in reality be no meaningful social distancing. Even the government admits that outbreaks in schools are “guaranteed”. Kids are bound to be confused and anxious as they traipse back to school this year. This autumn, kids will need more support than usual in readjusting to school. Nor can any of us know what the autumn will bring, as temperatures drop and we increasingly gather indoors. By then, these relatively carefree days of summer may well seem a distant memory.