A FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL UNLIKE ANY OTHER
Today we awoke to SNOW on the first day of fourth grade for my daughter and junior year for my son. But we live in Dallas, Texas, ya’ll — where it has NEVER snowed in September! What’s going on?! HINT: This was not a weird Ambien blackout wherein I hauled the kids across state lines and found myself and my children in a state and house that were unrecognizable. (Though, note to self: that does sound like a cool concept for a hot show on Netflix, probably starring Jason Bateman and me). Relax. Just snowing ya: my children and I are actually in Park City, Utah, where it does snow sometimes in September sometimes.
My sister and brother-in-law own a house in Park City, which we are lucky enough to be welcomed into for basically as long as we want (providing we turn off the lights religiously and root devotedly for the Dallas Mavericks/Stars/Cowboys —NOTE: we are on the good side of this deal).
Our first day of school, you may have gathered, is via Ipad/laptop and long- distance learning. Back in sweaty Dallas, kids (my children’s friends and classmates) arrive at our school in person for the first time today since March, uniforms on and masks affixed, ready to enter their classrooms with similarly masked teachers and desks six feet apart. It’s not exactly normal. No matter. My daughter wants desperately to be there. She is weepy and sad despite the glory of snow and mountains. She misses her trampoline, her dog, her room, and her friends, and she “HATES the Corona virus!” How can you do this to me? — she doesn’t ask, but only because she doesn’t like to talk about her feelings (dad’s DNA contribution). I can see the question clearly in her big brown eyes.
REPEAT TO SELF: WE DID THIS FOR A REASON
Truth is, as August arrived, I did need to escape the Texas heat. And not just the temperature. My husband working around the clock like crazy in his new practice area (probate law? need any?), thus more than enough stress was brewing, forget deciding whether to send our kids back to school in the middle of a freaking global pandemic.
My husband and I went back and forth, up, down and sideways throughout the summer— was the obvious upside of socialization worth the risk to our children’s health and those with whom they come in contact?
Dallas was still in the red zone in August — aka the highest possible risk (STAY HOME STAY SAFE) — when we had to make our official decision (to notify the school timely to prepare with correct in-class and remote numbers).
Despite a yearning desire to have our kids back in person in the classroom, to see their friends and teachers, to approach some kind of normalcy, but after careful consideration, it didn’t make sense to us to send our kids back as early as September. The unknowns were too much.
We would rather wait and take the temperature, as it were, if school started on the 8th (which it did!) and see if outbreaks occur, how our school handles the situation, if so, and whether it will lead to a bigger outbreak or they will be able to contain it. The worst to me (and my son, interestingly) was the notion of going back to school in person only to have an outbreak, and Bam! — stuck at home online again.
TOTAL FOMO, YA’LL
But today none of the reasons matter. I scroll through FaceBook and see our friends smiling in first day of school pictures. Holding signs that display the year. They radiate happy and hopeful. They look bigger than last we saw them six months ago.
I watch my beleaguered daughter stare at her Ipad screen. Did we make the right decision? Is there a right decision? It’s like choosing between a kick in the teeth or a sunburn that blisters. Both choices suck.
Both painful one way or another:
Option A.) Go to school, see your friends, socialize after 6 months of isolation and learn in person (albeit in masks, teachers included, and you can’t touch or sit near anybody), BUT risk exposure to Corona, to possibly spreading the virus, including to teachers and staff — but, the cherry on top! save your mental health by interacting in person with other actual people in real time, not on a screen —legitimate socialization, people! (Though even this point is a point of contention for some.)
Or B.) Stay at home, don’t see your friends or teachers, learn online by staring at a screen for hours, complain of headaches via bluescreen, see no real need to wear pants, refuse to do assignments or follow the daily schedule without needling or whining, thus obliterating any ability your sweet mother may or may not possess to do any work effectively; additionally expect said mother to provide food ALL DAY — breakfast, lunch, and dinner — as if she were some kind of live-in personal chef, short order cook, or MAID — BUT significantly reduce the risk of contracting or spreading the virus. This is the choice we freely chose.
GREAT. NOW I’M DEPRESSED AND IRRATIONAL: WHAT WERE THOSE REASONS AGAIN?
1.) Is it true that the mental health of our kids is better in person no matter what? Experts do not agree.
a.) As Robin Fierstein, PSY.D., of Philadelphia posted on Facebook: “as a child and family therapist, I strongly disagree with the arguments that schools should re-open for children’s emotional health.” She calls opening schools back up “short sighted and illogical,” and cites examples of why: “children [potentially] experiencing more deaths of loved ones, friend’s loved one’s and community members; having to obey rigid and developmentally inappropriate behavioral expectations” (like social distancing, and wearing masks for hours); restricting peer engagement when peers are “right in front of them”; meeting educational standards amid all the changes; and the lack of predictability as Covid possibly takes staff members and/or classmates away. If kids are largely in school, what does that do to the rate of future infection?
b.) Balanced against these health concerns are the educational needs of children. Experts agree students clearly learn better in schools, and in-school class is best practice. The reality in many parts of Texas (and elsewhere) is that kids learning remotely will be at an enormous disadvantage as some will struggle just to get online. For many kids, being in school also means access to food, medical care, and safety from abuse. Keeping schools closed [in any state] for a prolonged stretch has worrisome implications for social and academic development, some child development experts say.
OUR FAMILY CONCLUSION: While kids clearly learn best in an in-class setting, and that is our ultimate goal, my job is freelance. I am able to be home. My kids can get online and get help from me when/where they need it. It’s not a long-term solution, but still early in the academic year, for us the health interests overshadow the academic/social-emotional concerns. (Though they are still enormous concerns.)
2.) As infections are inevitable, what is in place to mitigate exposure?
a.) I just have to start here: I am exceedingly aware of the stark inequity when comparing our private school resources with that of most public schools. The discrepancy is real and it isn’t fair. I feel gross about it. But the unfair truth is, our school has resources such that they have gone above and beyond in terms of safety measures and specific protocol should outbreaks occur. They have planned for the possibility of shutting school down throughout the year as positive cases happen. They have set up a covered outdoor space, improved the ventilation system, and installed hand washing stations. We have lower student to teacher ratio in general, and walls have been knocked down in places to create bigger classrooms. I am keenly aware these changes are luxuries to which not everyone is privy.
b.) Even with extensive precautions, there is no guarantee that the virus won’t spread in our school community. Children tend not to get exceedingly ill from the virus or appear to contract it as often, true, but children also show higher concentrations of the virus (from a nose test, for example). Do children just have better immune systems to combat the virus, and thus, even if they are exposed, don’t result in serious symptoms? Maybe. So parents sending kids to school, fairly confident their kids aren’t going to contract the virus, or that if they do, it’s not such a big deal, are probably right. For kids anyway. But if kids tend to be less symptomatic, and thus unaware of spreading the virus, will eventual exposure end up having a disproportionate effect on adults (teachers and staff)? If asymptomatic kids spread the virus unknowinly, there can be serious repercussions if adults contract the virus and become seriously ill. If that happens, will adults die? What would the effect be on the community were that to happen? How do we weigh that with the social/emotional advantage of in-class instruction?
OUR FAMILY CONCLUSION: While we have been utterly impressed with all our school has done to prepare for possible exposure, the inability to control for the spread due to possible asymptomatic students, for one, doesn’t seem at this point, worth the risk. We will have more information over time to re-evaluate.
3.) What are the long-term effects on adults and/or children who get the virus?
a.) This one for me may be the kicker: we can’t know the long-term implications for anyone who contracts the virus — not even for those asymptomatic or who experience only mild symptoms. Even when someone has contracted the virus and came through it, for some there have been lingering cardiovascular, respiratory, and kidney issues. We currently have no idea what this means long term.
b.) Reports in adults increasingly suggest that death is not the only severe outcome. Many adults seem to have debilitating symptoms for weeks or months after they first contract the virus. Which leads to the question, are kids who are infected vulnerable to those long-term consequences as well?
OUR FAMILY. CONCLUSION: The only answer here is a big fat question mark. Although, as one of my dear friends reminds me, we don’t know the long- term effects of anything really, including breathing the air or ingesting whatever chemicals all day every day and that hasn’t kept us at home. I hear this and I get it. There are risks associated with stepping outside our door. The possibilities are endless. But time is going to answer some of these questions, and this question mark for us just feels too big.
4.) What is the most important factor in deciding whether children go back to school?
a.) Researchers seem to agree that community transmission is the most important factor when deciding whether or not children return to school. As one doctor put it, “We just can’t keep a school free from the coronavirus if the community is a hotbed of infection.”
b.) Dallas is as of now, down to orange designation, down from red and moving in the right direction. However, when we made the call, Dallas was still in the red. “STAY HOME STAY SAFE” seemed pretty clear. Obviously different zip codes have different numbers of cases, and ours were lower. Still, that red risk level was a line for us.
A COUPLE OF FINAL POINTS
1.) I have NO JUDGEMENT about anyone who decided (or decides) to send their kids to in person school. It was a tough and personal call for every family. It still is. Without clear information, it can feel like a crap shoot. Some help at the federal level would be peachy, but that’s another post!
2.) Gross inequities are at play here in our decision and we know it. As my children and I enjoy the snow or miss our friends or both, we are beyond lucky to have the choice we are afforded by attending a school that is able to provide exceptional safety measures. I feel like shit about this. But does feeling guilty and shitty help? Nope. Not any more than white privilege guilt helps the African American community. Individually, I need to find ways to help kids who do not have the amenities we do. So far, some volunteering has filled that description, but now that school is on, continuing that remains an open question. I know it isn’t nearly enough.
Just for the hell of it at this point, the CDC has several charts on their website aimed to help parents decide what makes sense for their family and school. Still interesting, to a geek like me anyway, to look at the breakdown even if you’re decision is made https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/decision-tool.html.
No matter what your choice, be safe and careful out there. Can’t wait to meet you in person.
Previously published on medium
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want to join our calls on a regular basis, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash