Decisions and Actions: An Unusual Back-To-School Season

OK, Friends (deep breath),   When I first imagined writing an article around organizing tips for back-to-school a couple of months ago, I confess I had some misgivings - where would we be in mid-to-late August with

OK, Friends (deep breath),


When I first imagined writing an article around organizing tips for back-to-school a couple of months ago, I confess I had some misgivings – where would we be in mid-to-late August with our pandemic challenges? What would individual schools, administrators, boards, universities, teachers, parents, and others be facing and having to prepare for? What tips would even be relevant?


Clearly, I had no clue (did any of us?), and I decided to hold off writing until the last minute – not my usual modus operandi. In years past, I would have easily launched into how to design and organize the perfect home study space, given advice about the best backpacks, or waxed eloquently about a family calendar. Now, I’m facing the start of a school year where everything is upside-down. I’ve done absolutely no back-to-school shopping (there’s really nothing shop for, yet). My son, a junior in high school, has only picked up a school-issued Chromebook and is on hold to hear how his online learning program will shake out. My daughter faces going back to her first college apartment…where she will stay put and take all of her courses remotely. Not exactly the fall semester anyone had in mind, and I feel especially sympathetic to families with younger children.


Everyone’s options and choices will be different. For some, decisions will be relatively easy—others, anywhere from unsettling to gut-wrenching. So much is not within our control, and this virus has affected different areas in a variety of continually shifting ways. And so, I decided that what I can offer here is to look around at what can be controlled as we approach the school year. Working on organization is one small thing that we can wrangle, get our heads around, and see an immediate benefit from.


Many of you may have spent the first part of your local “stay at home” time in that massive purge mode – going through those closets and cabinets with a vengeance (if not, no worries – I didn’t). But getting rid of clutter is merely a subset of organization. Once you’ve donated, discarded, and cleared areas, organizing can go to a deeper, more supportive place. You can look not only at how you want to arrange things but also how you can create an environment that will ease the stress of whatever school situation your family finds itself in. The following suggestions are certainly not all-inclusive, but hopefully can inspire you to review your own situation in a proactive light. Here goes…


Make some decisions (even if they’re small). Organizer Barbara Hemphill famously said, “All clutter is the result of postponed decisions,” – and that goes for head clutter too. Will your children have online school? Or more of a homeschool environment? Will they go back, but with an adjusted schedule? Where will they study? How will parents balance working from home with child care? Making decisions, even if they aren’t ideal, can bring a settling…a sense of calm and the mindset of “OK, this isn’t perfect, but at least now I know.”


Based on those decisions, take some actions. Actions could look like:


  • Revamping a chore list so that your youngest household members share in something that keeps the peace in stressful times. If they can walk, and pick things up, they can pitch in. If family members know that they can count on clean bath towels, or the groceries being put away, right away, there’s a comfort. Teamwork, and a sense of “we’re in this together,” goes a long way.


  • Have chores, yes, but keep it easy. If you’re juggling kids at home with work from home, don’t pressure yourself by going overboard with household perfection. Can you find what you need, when you need it? Is your home safe and comfortable, if not spotless? Are there clean socks (never mind whether or not they match)? Count yourself successful.


  • Do set up a study spot with boundaries – review what you may have learned from the end of the last school year. A boundary can be a specific room, a corner with a screen around it, or even an area taped on the floor. You may need several spots if you’ve discovered working together is impossible, and spaces might have to serve double duty. The evening TV-watching room may also be the science lab from 8:00 am to noon. Wherever the boundary is, kids should know that when they enter that area, it’s time to do school/homework.


  • Involve children in deciding what supplies should go in the study space, and how they would like for them to be stored. The easier it is for your third-grader to get her own scissors and colored pencils (and put them back), the fewer interruptions you’ll have.


  • Time boundaries are essential, too, for your children and you. Hold a family meeting to discuss who will be working, and when (and when it’s time to cut it off for the day).


  • If you haven’t already, set up a sanitation station near the main entrance/exit to your home, equipped with plenty of masks (and a place to put dirty ones), hand sanitizer, disinfecting spray, and wipes. Set up a basket or rack for shoes to come off outside the door.


  • Have a college student at home? Get together with them to learn some easy, nutritious, possibly microwaveable recipes. If they’re heading back to their campus, have them cook dinner for everyone for a few nights before leaving. These are not only positive life skills, but indispensable should eating in the campus cafeterias become difficult or impossible.


  • Equip your college student with medical/first aid basics like a thermometer, disinfecting wipes, fever-reducing medication, hand sanitizer, and of course, masks. Make sure they have a copy of your health insurance information.


  • Ask for help. I’ve seen some pretty creative ideas floating around about forming small neighborhood “pods” to share childcare responsibilities. Spring for a conscientious sitter if you can fit it into the budget or share a sitter with one other trusted family. Reach out to teachers to get clarity around class expectations and assignments (and to see what needs they may have!).


  • Before school gets going full swing, have some fun – especially if vacation plans were postponed. Set up a tent in the back yard, go for a socially-distanced trip to the zoo, or listen to an audiobook together.


Much of what I’ve outlined above is transferable – ideas that would be useful whether there’s a deadly virus out there or not. But in terms of the unique circumstances we find ourselves in, I don’t want to ignore the obvious – it’s possible someone in your family could become ill. Set up procedures if someone comes down with symptoms – when to see a doctor/get tested, who needs to know, what happens next based upon test results. Decide which room in your home can serve as a quarantine space, if required. Check out your local community resources (city and county websites, hospitals, libraries, school websites) for updated information. Apple even has a free COVID-19 app that walks you through questions and provides other useful information.


Making decisions and taking actions are two solid ways to navigate any stressful situation, and even just one or two small moves forward can make a difference. I do hope that my 2021 Back-To-School article will look a lot different, and I sincerely hope you all stay safe, organized, and, most importantly, healthy.




Sara S. Skillen
Sara S. Skillen is the owner of SkillSet Coaching & Organizing, a professional organizing and ADHD/productivity coaching business. Her passion is helping all kinds of people manage their stuff, their time, and their tasks. She is a Certified Organizer Coach®, a Certified Professional Organizer®, and an Evernote Certified Consultant. Sara is the author of the recently-published Organizing and Big Scary Goals: Working With Discomfort and Doubt to Create Real life Order. Her writing has also appeared in Music City Moms, Entrepreneur, and Angie’s List Experts, as well as her blog “The Stuff Behind The Stuff.” She lives in Franklin, TN with her husband, two teenagers, and two extremely productive and focused Labrador retrievers.