BURKE, Va. – On a recent car ride, my sons, Billy and Jimmy, were discussing an interactive “Minecraft” show on Netflix that allowed them to choose the direction of the story. I said it sounded like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, an artifact of my 1980s childhood.
Then Billy, who's 10 years old, surprised me. He had heard of “Choose Your Own Adventure.”
“My friend had one. He said I could read it when he was done,” Billy said. He paused, long enough for me to know what he would say next.
“That was right before the virus,” he said.
For my kids, 2020 has been the opposite of a choose-your-own-adventure story. Their options have dwindled. Windows of opportunity have appeared to crack open, only to slam in their faces.
As the debate rages over whether U.S. schools should reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, the way Billy learned about “Choose Your Own Adventure” demonstrates the intangible harm that comes with kids being away from school. A rising fifth-grader like him can learn the curriculum virtually, complete worksheets and projects, and take tests. But nothing can replace the knowledge and experience he gains from being around his peers five days a week and sharing their intellectual curiosity.
“I hate virtual school,” Billy said.
It's not the school part he hates. It's the virtual part.
Our school district, in Fairfax County, Virginia, was the first in the Washington area to commit to a hybrid model for the fall, allowing parents to choose between full-time virtual school or two days a week of in-person instruction. When I told Billy about the two-day-a-week plan, he was overjoyed — because he had assumed he wouldn't get to go to school at all.
Ultimately, he was right. The school board abandoned the hybrid model last week. I told the boys at the breakfast table. Billy slapped his hand against his thigh and walked away in disgust.
It was the latest cruel twist in my kids' pandemic lives, another adventure they can't choose.
Little League baseball, their favorite sport, teased the possibility of a much-delayed spring season for months before announcing its cancellation. The fall season is supposed to start in August, with mask-wearing and social-distancing requirements similar to what we've seen in major league dugouts.
After I told the boys they could play, the league blindsided us with a new restriction: Kids have to be 7 years old by Aug. 31 to participate this year. No exceptions.
Jimmy turns 7 in mid-September. Most of his would-be teammates can play this fall, but he can't. When I gave him the news, he sobbed uncontrollably.
This time last year, Billy was coming off the most exhilarating month of his life, his first time on a Little League All-Star team. Both boys were going to camp five days a week. Billy learned to fish. Jimmy played soccer and basketball and spotted bald eagles nesting above a lake.
This year, they wake up and go straight to the TV, their tablets or a video-game console while my wife and I work. Sometimes we can do something with them to break up the monotony. Sometimes we can't.
The boys understand the need to sacrifice and be vigilant about preventing the spread of the virus. They have accepted disappointment while mostly maintaining their good cheer.
But the sacrifices are profound for them, much more so than me giving up live music, sports or travel for a year or two. They'll never be in fourth and fifth grade, or kindergarten and first grade, again. They feel the losses more deeply, and the uncertainty gnaws at them in ways I can't see. I know the pandemic will affect their mental health and their view of the world for years or decades to come, and I feel powerless.
If the only adventure they can choose is to push a button on a remote control, then we are failing them.
Virus Diary, an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of AP journalists around the world. Ben Nuckols is a sports writer for The Associated Press based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols