In-Person Vs. Online: Starting Back to School in a Pandemic

Here’s something we can all agree on: going back to school has never, ever been this fraught or complicated.

As states and school districts across America unveil their plans for the upcoming school year, we parents have to decide how our kids should continue their education. Email inboxes and Facebook feeds and group chats are literally blowing up with parental anxiety. The stakes are high. The kids have been out of in-person school for twice the length of a normal summer vacation. Parents are exhausted and worried about their jobs. Online instruction is, for the most part, not ideal for students or teachers – but given the upswing of COVID cases and the logistics of school as usual, schools cannot open normally.

The gospel gives us the foundation we need to make decisions with confidence because our confidence is in God, not in ourselves. His sovereignty releases us from the pressure of making the “right” decision about going back to school. On the cross He proved once and for all that He has the power to redeem anything we do and anything that happens to us. The choices we face are complex, but we are not alone or unprotected as we venture forth in faith to make them.

Understand Role Versus Responsibility

Pastoral counselor Julie Sparkman teaches about the difference  between role and  responsibility in relationships[1]. My role is to do the very best I can for the people I love, but because I am human and imperfect and weak, I will often fail. I am grateful that the final responsibility for the one I love belongs to God, because no matter how hard I try, I cannot bear total responsibility for myself, let alone someone else.

Sparkman uses this illustration: when her son was an infant, she researched and bought the safest carseat on the market. She diligently double checked the seatbelts whenever they drove somewhere. She did everything possible to keep her son safe… until the time when she arrived home to realize she had not buckled him in correctly, and her infant was trapped underneath the overturned carseat. Her mistake could have cost her son his life.

Julie’s baby was fine, but not because she is such a great mom. She took her role as his protector very seriously, but even giving him her best, her son’s safety was beyond her control. Had her son had been injured or worse, God’s providential care would have held true. Speaking as a father who did lose his son, Cameron Cole tells us to look to the cross: “While we wrestle with the tension and suffer in the mystery, we must keep our eyes on the cross, where we see God’s beautiful glory exploding from the intersection of his sovereignty and goodness. God is in control of your life…” and your children’s lives.[2]

Recognizing that God equips me for my role in my children’s lives but not final responsibility frees me to fulfill that role wholeheartedly. This doesn’t make the back-to-school decision easy, but it take the pressure off of me to get it right. My energy and my attention remain focused on what I can do instead of what I cannot.

I can pray for wisdom, discernment, and creative problem-solving.

I can talk to people I trust, who know my child and my family: teachers, doctors, administrators, friends, and counselors (my child’s youth pastor!).

I can educate my family about good health practices and purchase what we need to be as safe as possible.

I can talk openly with my child, hear their concerns, and invite them to participate in the decision process.

I can ask for and accept help from family, neighbors, friends, and folks from church.

I can work to support my child spiritually, financially, emotionally, and academically.

I can graciously accept my limitations in every one of these areas, hand my inadequacy over to God, give thanks for His provision, and leave all outcomes in His hands.

So actually, I am not powerless – there’s a lot I can do! But there are some things I can’t:

I cannot make a choice for my child’s education that will be problem-free, painless, easy, or simple. This virus has not left that possibility open to us.

I cannot keep my child safe from all harm at all times, either at home or at school.

I cannot bend other people to my will, forcing others to choose or do what I think is best.

I cannot predict the future impact of this pandemic on my child’s life.

Avoid Future Forecasting

The words of James 4:13-15 have never rung more true: we can make our plans, but COVID forces us to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” This or that indeed.

We cannot know the consequences of our choices before we make them. We’d like to think that if we keep our kids at home they won’t get the virus, but I would bet every parent reading this knows someone who has done everything by the book and has gotten COVID anyway. We’d like to think that sending our kids to school will keep them on track academically and socially, but they might struggle in classrooms where everyone is masked and socially distant. In spite of knowing our kids better than anyone and caring for them deeply, we can neither predict nor control how online learning or in person school will go for them.

In fact, projecting into the future because we think we know outcomes is dangerously prideful. Only God knows what our children’s futures hold; He’s the only one wise enough to handle that information.

Avoid Comparing Your Choices to Everyone Else’s

You’ve probably heard statements like these: “My kids will go back – children NEED TO BE AT SCHOOL,” or, alternatively, “It’s inexcusable that school districts are expecting teachers to teach in person.” You can hear the implication: “Whoever disagrees with me doesn’t care about ______ (and is obviously a selfish, terrible person).”

Scripture agrees we are all selfish (Philippians 2:21), but it also says that most parents try to give their children the good stuff (Luke 11:11). I’d like to suggest that we assume that our fellow parents love their children like we do and are doing the best they can to care for them, even if it does not look like what we ourselves might choose. I do not need another parent to agree with me or validate my choices for my child, and I am not qualified to form an opinion about how they ought to care for theirs. Meet judgment and anger with grace and watch what God will do.

Rest In God’s Love for Your Children (and You)

Everything about this pandemic has been hard, but surely this decision is amongst the hardest. Parent-love is intense; our urge to protect, visceral; our yearning for their thriving, passionate. God gets all of that, because He feels the same way, only more so. God’s love for our children is so intense, so visceral, so passionate, that He sent His only Son to suffer and die for them. This pandemic, and whatever we choose to do about school in the midst of it, is part of the good story He has already written for them.

In the words of Samwise Gamgee, “everything sad is going to come untrue…” The world’s sadness began to unravel at the cross. Rest assured the unraveling continues, even through 2020.


[1] Counselor Julie Sparkman has led Rooted conference workshop, been a guest on the Rooted podcast, and will be featured in our 2020 virtual conference.

[2] Cameron Cole, Therefore I Have Hope: Twelve Truths That Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy, p. 100.

Anna is a single mom of three young adult sons. She is the Senior Director of Content at Rooted, co-host of the Rooted Parent podcast, a member of Church of the Cross in Birmingham, AL, and the author of God's Grace for Every Family: Biblical Encouragement for Single Parent Families and the Churches That Seek to Love Them Well (Zondervan, 2024). She also wrote Fresh Faith: Topical Devotions and Scripture-Based Prayers for College Students. In her free time, Anna enjoys gardening, great books, running, hiking, hammocks, and ice cream. She wants to live by a mountain stream in Idaho someday.

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