The Five Stages of Grieving Another School Year Lost to Coronavirus

NC educators and parents in many school districts are preparing for a remote reopening for NC schools. (Image via Shutterstock)

By Kim Mackey

July 22, 2020

As the coronavirus gets worse and worse in NC, educators and parents like myself are preparing to begin the school year remotely.

In June, I watched my students graduate high school in a drive-through ceremony and drove through my daughter’s pre-K graduation event as she waved to her teachers from her booster seat, dressed in a blue graduation cap and gown.

Neither of these events manifested as we originally envisioned, but parents and educators pulled together to provide honorable substitutes to recognize these milestones.

That’s why, as a veteran teacher and mother of two young children, I empathize with fellow educators and parents as we navigate the dynamic COVID19 data and the virus’ impact on our school communities.

Because the coronavirus is, without question, getting worse in NC, we begin a new school year the same way we ended the last one — with educators and parents doing their best to provide honorable substitutes to ideal learning conditions.

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Our task is made more difficult as cases continue to rise because preventative preaching to physically distance and wear face coverings has fallen on too many deaf ears.

Gov. Roy Cooper gave school districts a wide berth to choose how they will reopen, and as of Wednesday, nearly 30 of NC’s 115 school districts have chosen a remote-only return in August. Dozens more are planning meetings in the next week to make their choice.

Our task is made near impossible by the failure of state and national governments to invest in implementing required reopening protocols.

As of July 12, North Carolina’s COVID19 cases per 10,000 people was 2.35, more than ten times higher than when Denmark began gradually reopening its school buildings, and over two hundred times higher than South Korea.

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And so we grieve the loss of the start of a school year that could have been.

There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance.  Like our country’s unstable path combatting COVID19, the path through grief is both unpredictable and repetitive.


Denial is a stage too many people cannot snap out of nor resist revisiting.  Pretending there isn’t a pandemic may be a “normal” phase of grief by buying time to process undesirable news, but failure to promptly acknowledge and mitigate a pandemic means we all spend more time coping with it.  

We must recalibrate this defense mechanism into actually defending ourselves and each other from infection while the medical community works on effective treatment of this novel virus.


Educators and parents are angry because our children are losing the opportunity to resume their routines of full in-person learning. 

Because too many adults have failed to put the common good above their individual desires and conveniences.  

Too many politicians have tried to have it both ways by saying it’s important for students to return to buildings yet fail to support that return by investing in resources to fulfill required reopening protocols.

It’s OK to be angry.  It’s part of grieving.  But targeting local school districts with that anger misses the mark and lets the more influential state and national legislatures off the hook.


Waiting for others to lead and hoping for the best can be depressing, especially when there is a void in leadership.  

Parents and educators may show signs of this stage. “Just make a decision,” they might say. Or “tell me what to do and let’s move on.”  

At the time they convince themselves that any answer is better than no answer.  

Many reconsider this approach once an answer is given, particularly if it was devised without input from front-line educators.  They don’t actually want just any answer — they want answers that prioritize safety and educational opportunity.


We must move into the bargaining stage to channel any anger and exercise our influence over lawmakers who so far have failed to act in ways that support safe reopening of school buildings.

With an election just over three months away, educators and parents hold a lot of bargaining power and must work together to use it.


Accepting death is part of life, but trying to convince folks to accept premature preventable deaths instead of convincing communities to work together to limit the spread of a novel virus is a failure of leadership.  

We all want to resume face to face instruction, but in the big scheme of things I’d rather mourn an ideal school year than mourn a child, student, or colleague.


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