This week my family marked a very unusual milestone, when our seven-year-old son returned to school after 13 months of COVID-19 closures across the Los Angeles school district.
As the return date loomed, Charlton could not have been more excited to return to a real classroom, with his teacher and friends.
My husband and I, while elated and supportive, quietly struggled with the severe safety measures and regulations required to get the kids back to school in a city emerging from a health crisis. (LA County currently records fewer than 500 new coronavirus cases a day, and has administered more than six million doses of coronavirus vaccines.)
The reality is this: Students are COVID tested weekly and must fill out a daily health pass to receive a QR code to be scanned at the gate. Parents aren't allowed on school grounds, so we have a map of traffic queues and drop off zones to adhere to.
My son's class is down to 10 students, as the rest of the children (or their parents) opted to continue online learning. The playground remains taped off, and Charlie reports they sit two chairs away from each other and wear their masks at all times.
Class runs for just three hours, with the rest of the work to be done with supervisors or at home with parents. Which means that after more than a year, many parents – my husband included - still cannot work.
I went to drop off on Monday feeling frustrated for us all, sad and filled with guilt about the school experience my son could be having back in Australia.
When I asked Charlie how he felt after day one he said it was "great" and loved seeing everyone in person, reminding me yet again of how incredibly adaptable and resilient children can be in the face of change and uncertainty.
In March 2020, on Charlie's sixth birthday, schools across LA closed due to a state-wide COVID-19 lockdown. The initial timeline was two weeks at home. But as the pandemic took hold the goal posts moved, the weeks stretched to months, and life in America only got harder.
In August, he started Year One at our kitchen table, in a Zoom classroom with a teacher and around 20 other little faces, and his father sitting beside him supervising and assisting his learning.
"Early on the biggest challenge was just getting my head around all the school accounts, log-ins, the online routine, and making sure he had the right work books and activities handy," my husband Luke recalls. "Then just being there day in day out to help him follow along with the teacher's instructions over Zoom."
Charlton remote learning with his sister keeping him company. Photo: Supplied
We quickly realised homeschooling with our three-year-old hurricane of a daughter was not possible or fair on anyone so she started preschool full time, which only raised more questions for her brother.
"Why can she go to school with her friends all day every day and I can't?" We've never been able to answer that one. The inconsistencies in COVID-19 responses and restrictions have been baffling from day one.
To the credit of himself, his teacher and his father, during this year Charlie learned to read and write.
My husband was essentially in the classroom with him for eight months, but I was travelling for weeks at a time for work so to me his progress seemed sudden and incredible.
Amelia's husband and son hard at work home-schooling. Photo: Supplied
I'll never forget returning from the chaotic, seemingly endless US election campaign, witnessing our son read our daughter her bedtime story for the first time. And with an American accent, acquired via Zoom!
I'm so proud of what he's achieved under the circumstances, and when I asked him this week what got him through this strange school year he didn't hesitate: "Daddy."
His father explains the toll experienced by so many parents in our situation: "I've felt isolated, especially because we couldn't travel or have family to visit. I haven't been mixing with many adults, and I feel out of touch with my industry/profession."
Amelia's son Charlton (third from right) with his 'park gang'. Photo: Supplied
The local park has been our saving grace, a sanctuary of sorts where Charlie could still run around and meet friends and get some social interaction. It's also the place my husband made friends, meeting other park parents and forming a little crew than now meets most afternoons and on weekends.
When I finally did that long-awaited, albeit strange and sterile school drop off, I suggested we take a selfie to mark the moment and send to the grandparents back home. He promptly whipped his mask down and flashed a grin the likes of which I hadn't seen for 13 months. And his day one review?
School is "awesome" and "just totally normal." Whatever normal is these days, we are embracing it.
Amelia Adams is Senior US Correspondent for Nine News.