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My kids’ first cold of the pandemic school year was a nightmare for our family

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. 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.

In This Article

    Tips parents need to know about poor air quality and caring for kids with asthma

    There are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

    When wildfires struck the West Coast in September 2020, there was a lot for parents to worry about. For parents of children with asthma, though, the danger could be even greater. "There are more than 400 toxins that are present in wildfire smoke. That can activate the immune system in ways that aren't helpful by both causing an inflammatory response and distracting the immune system from fighting infection," says Amy Oro, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children's Health. "When smoke enters into the lungs, it causes irritation and muscle spasms of the smooth muscle that is around the small breathing tubes in the lungs. This can lead to difficulty with breathing and wheezing. It's really difficult on the lungs."

    With the added concern of COVID-19 and the effect it can have on breathing, many parents feel unsure about how to keep their children protected. The good news is that there are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

    Here are tips parents need to know about how to deal with poor air quality when your child has asthma.

    Minimize smoke exposure.

    Especially when the air quality index reaches dangerous levels, it's best to stay indoors as much as possible. You can find out your area's AQI at AirNow.gov. An under 50 rating is the safest, but between 100-150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children with asthma. "If you're being told to stay indoors, listen. If you can, keep the windows and doors closed," Oro says.

    Do your best to filter the air.

    According to Oro, a HEPA filter is your best bet to effectively clean pollutants from the air. Many homes are equipped with a built-in HEPA filter in their air conditioning systems, but you can also get a canister filter. Oro says her family (her husband and children all suffer from asthma) also made use of a hack from the New York Times and built their own filter by duct taping a HEPA furnace filter to the front of a box fan. "It was pretty disgusting what we accumulated in the first 20 hours in our fan," she says.

    Avoid letting your child play outside or overly exert themselves in open air.

    "Unfortunately, cloth masks don't do very much [to protect you from the smoke pollution]," Oro says. "You really need an N95 mask, and most of those have been allocated toward essential workers." To keep at-risk children safer, Oro recommends avoiding brisk exercise outdoors. Instead, set up an indoor obstacle course or challenge your family to jumping jacks periodically to keep everyone moving safely.

    Know the difference between smoke exposure and COVID-19.

    "COVID-19 can have a lot of the same symptoms—dry cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and chest pain could overlap. But what COVID and other viruses generally cause are fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea and body aches. Those would tell you it's not just smoke exposure," Oro says. When a child has been exposed to smoke, they often complain of a "scrape" in their throat, burning eyes, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain or wheezing. If the child has asthma, parents should watch for a flare of symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing or a tight sensation in their chest.

    Unfortunately, not much is known about long-term exposure to wildfire smoke on a healthy or compromised immune system, but elevated levels of air pollution have been associated with increased COVID-19 rates. That's because whenever there's an issue with your immune system, it distracts your immune system from fighting infections and you have a harder time fighting off viruses. Limiting your exposure to wildfire smoke is your best bet to keep immune systems strong.

    Have a plan in place if you think your child is suffering from smoke exposure.

    Whatever type of medication your child takes for asthma, make sure you have it on-hand and that your child is keeping up with regular doses. Contact your child's pediatrician, especially if your area has a hazardous air quality—they may want to adjust your child's medication schedule or dosage to prevent an attack. Oro also recommends that, if your child has asthma, it might be helpful to have a stethoscope or even a pulse oximeter at home to help diagnose issues with your pediatrician through telehealth.

    Most importantly, don't panic.

    In some cases, social distancing and distance learning due to COVID may be helping to keep sensitive groups like children with asthma safer. Oro says wildfires in past years have generally resulted in more ER visits for children, but the most recent fires haven't seen the same results. "A lot of what we've seen is that the smoke really adversely affects adults, especially older adults over 65," Oro says. "Children tend to be really resilient."

    This article was sponsored by Stanford Children's Health. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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    14 toys that will keep your kids entertained inside *and* outside

    They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

    With fall in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in outside-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

    From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

    Wooden doll stroller

    Janod wooden doll stroller

    Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.

    $120

    Detective set

    Plan Toys detective set

    This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

    $40

    Sand play set

    Plan Toys sand set

    Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

    $30

    Water play set

    Plan Toys water play set

    Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

    $100

    Mini golf set

    Plan Toys mini golf set

    Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

    $40

    Vintage scooter balance bike

    Janod retro scooter balance bike

    Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

    $121

    Wooden rocking pegasus

    plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

    Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.

    $100

    Croquet set

    Plan Toys croquet set

    The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

    $45

    Wooden digital camera

    fathers factory wooden digital camera

    Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.

    $179

    Wooden bulldozer toy

    plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

    Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.

    $100

    Pull-along hippo

    janod toys pull along hippo toy

    There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.

    $33

    Baby forest fox ride-on

    janod toys baby fox ride on

    Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.

    $88

    Balance board

    Plan Toys balance board

    Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!

    $75

    Meadow ring toss game

    Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

    Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

    $30

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    29 last-minute family Halloween costumes you can pull together NOW

    If your little one is going as a lion, coordinating is as easy as breaking out the khaki!

    Here's how Halloween unfolds in most households I know: Mom spends weeks—even months—planning the perfect costumes for little ones. Then Halloween creeps up and they realize they need an outfit to coordinate with the kids' get-ups. What's a mom to do?!

    Thankfully, there's no need for fear or pressure: There are so many ideas for parents that are easy to make and still super clever.

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