This essay was originally published on September 20, 2020.
I thought I was one of the lucky ones when our children's small school announced over the summer that it would open for in-person education this fall. At our school, kids wear masks in the hallway, classes are somewhat separated from one another and the school families act as one quarantine bubble together. We were basically a pod before pods were a thing.
Our children are at low risk. After six months in quarantine, I was incredibly relieved to have them back in business at school. So a few weeks ago, we stocked up on face masks and hand sanitizer and sent them on their way.
I crossed my fingers that things would go well, knowing in the back of my mind that there was a chance of a COVID outbreak, a statewide shutdown or some unforeseen event that could send the kids back home again.
I didn't anticipate that a runny nose would wreak havoc on our family.
It started on a Sunday night, four weeks into the school year. In the middle of the night, our eldest son started up with a barking cough, and by daybreak, all three of our school-aged children were coughing alongside him. But when they popped out of bed and demanded waffles, it was clear they felt perfectly fine—no fever, no lethargy—just runny noses and accompanying coughs.
In normal times, I wouldn't hesitate to send my kids to school with a slight cold. Our kids often get coughs during cold and flu season and since they had no other symptoms, we'd send them on their way.
But of course, 2020 is different. The margin of error feels like life or death.
Since my husband and I had busy work weeks ahead, I tried to get the kids into our pediatrician's office as quickly as possible. In fact, I was sitting in their parking lot at 9 am on that Monday morning with a call in to the receptionist, who promptly told me that with symptoms like that, I was not allowed to bring the kids in for an in-person appointment. We headed home.
Within an hour, we were on Zoom with our pediatrician, who virtually "examined" all three of the kids via video chat. He attempted to look down their throats, count their breaths and check for any visible signs of sickness. Once the three checkups were over, he handed down his diagnosis:
"They all have a virus," he said. "But based on our area and the CDC's guidelines for our country, there's only a 1% chance it's the virus. My recommendation is that you don't need COVID-19 testing, and that you can safely send them back to school."
What at first sounded like a relief, instead started feeling like a confusing moral quandary. If I let them go to school with any risk of COVID-19, was I being selfish? Or was I overburdening our family and denying my kids an education by keeping them home when our doctor said it was low risk? Depending on the point of view, I could convince myself that they were fine going to school, or that they must stay home.
Here's the thing: Our country's lack of a coordinated, federal effort to help families navigate work, school and child care during the pandemic has left millions of families like mine completely on their own. Our family lost a beloved elderly relative over the summer from COVID-19 contracted from a caregiver, so we are very aware of the complexities at play.
But instead of a clear national response, we have a patchwork approach, with each family making their own cost/benefit analyses, weighing ethical considerations and above all, just trying to get through this difficult time—with families, jobs and educations intact.
Unable to decide, I kept the kids at home that first day. There were sibling skirmishes, and disruptions to our normal work day. As the day wore on and my husband and I got busier, their screen time allocations went up and up. In fact, that day, they got more screen time than they usually get in a week.
By Tuesday, I was desperate to send them to school the next day. I called our school's director who said she was comfortable with us coming back as long as they didn't have fevers. My daughter woke up sounding even more congested, but still, no kids had fevers.
I thought perhaps one more day of waiting it out might make sense.
But by the end of that day, my husband and I were at the end of our ropes. We were both still super busy with work deadlines, the boys were fighting, and the house was a disaster. A project I was working on kept getting bumped back to the point of becoming a major problem.
I could have kept them home the entire week, but our family was becoming a runaway train of missed deadlines and too much screen time and not enough school time.
So on Wednesday morning, with no signs of fevers and kids who seemed happy to go back to school, I loaded them back in our minivan and dropped them off with their teachers.
I worried about sending them back to school with coughs—would they become the targets of fear from other kids during this scary time? Would their teachers feel like I was putting them at risk? What does a "1% chance" actually mean anyway? Someone has to be that 1%—maybe it was us?
That said, I do think parents' mental health and resilience should be a factor in sending kids to school—as well as the importance of consulting with your pediatrician and school director or principal. With four kids and two full-time careers, our family relies on school to be a crucial part of our village that enables us to support our families—and we are far from alone. Without that outlet, we all suffer. I do think that matters.
But looking at it another way, anything less than a 100% lockdown is taking a risk. Even having groceries delivered is a risk. We are living in the land of risk. Careful, calculated risk seems like all we have.
I felt guilty for sending them back with "a" virus. I still do. Ideally, I wouldn't have to take a risk at all. But in this impossible situation, sometimes you have to choose the least bad choice.
Parents are doing the best they can with the tools and knowledge we have. My family included.