COVID and schools: Our only certainty is uncertainty

Amidst the tangle of mail consisting of grocery ads and a retirement fund quarterly report and the membership renewal form for the botanical gardens, I spot a small manilla envelope emblazoned with the return address of my children’s school. This is what I have been waiting for with equal parts hope and dread.

Last year was supposed to be the beginning of a new era for me — the year that all 3 of my children would be attending the same K-8 school full time. It worked out well until March, the month when they left for their week of Spring Break and never went back. The five months since then have been a tedious, complicated, difficult time. Yes, there have been silver linings and upsides to this forced time together, but it has also been hard and messy and taxing. When I discovered that school would not resume for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, I regrouped, but only with the subconscious understanding that surely they would go back in August 2020.

We have cobbled together a tolerable summer. Our pool finally opened, and we have been there frequently. We met up with a few family members at remote AirBnB’s on a couple of occasions. We have gone fishing, and to the zoo and whatever other socially distant outings I can conceive of, but the truth of the matter is that the kids have been abandoned to screens way more often than during summers past. The soccer camps and outdoor day camps and basically any other planned activities have been canceled. My husband and I still have full-time jobs. Although we try to do what we can from home, we are still tied up with meetings and online work when we are here. I cannot work my pediatric hospitalist shifts from home, so I continue to escape to the hospital for those. It is during the work shifts that I feel the most normal.

Everyone is snapping at each other more than usual. All three children have stated that they want to go back to school and are disappointed that it is still weeks away from starting. My youngest asked me to text her kindergarten teacher from last year to say, “I love you, Mrs. S!” We went shopping for school supplies in mid-July, crossing everything except the anti-bacterial wipes (which we cannot find) off of their lists. The bags of supplies are stacked against one of the kitchen walls, bearing witness to our daily struggles, providing a beacon of hope that the situation will soon change.

Of course, as a human and parent and health care worker, I am inundated with data and opinions about COVID and school reopening and masks and vaccines. I don’t know what the right answer is when it comes to balancing mental health and education and population health and the economy. I don’t think there is a right answer, to be honest. I think the only current certainty is uncertainty. Maybe I am biased by the fact that I have seen very few seriously ill children at work. Maybe I am biased because my family is generally healthy.

Of course, my children will wear their masks at school and when we venture into public. Of course, we will keep them home at the first sign of any potential illness. We will continue to avoid large group gatherings.

But their school plans to re-open. I have read about the plans for being outside as much as possible and wearing masks and washing hands six times per day and checking temperatures. And I am not certain that this is the right thing to do. But I am even less certain that keeping them home even longer is the right thing to do.

I filled out their back to school documents with feverish conviction this year. I signed my name with vehemence, resisting the urge to add the “MD” at the end. It was only when I printed out the school lunch calendar that I finally felt tears forming in the back of my eyes. Which one of these days will be the one when it all falls apart? On BBQ chicken leg with assorted whole grain bread day? Or will it be after a lunch of cheesy nachos and sunflower seeds that my child will feel warm and be banished for 14 days. I don’t know. Nobody knows. Filling out the forms and buying the supplies doesn’t make any of it more certain. Our only certainty is uncertainty.

Lisa Sieczkowski is a pediatrician. 

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