Health

‘Insurmountable’: Parents grapple with omicron’s upending force in schools

This is parenthood nearly two years into the pandemic,
as schools reopen after the holidays. Or don’t. Or do halfway, or open and
close again, or — they’re not sure. They’ll let you know tomorrow.

The New York Times asked parents to share how they
were handling their schools’ approaches. Hundreds responded, almost all of them
mothers. Their answers varied widely in specifics but mostly boiled down to:
Not well.

“I am screaming inside,” wrote Cathy Nieng, the
Chicago mother.

“I cry a lot,” said Juliana Gamble, whose children —
ages 2 and 7 — have been in school and day care in Boston for just 11 days in
the past eight weeks. “I feel a total loss of control of my life.”

Kate Hurley, of Minneapolis, sent her 7-year-old
daughter to school Monday with a KN95 mask but kept her 4-year-old son home
because he isn’t eligible for a vaccine yet.

“When we started the pandemic, parenting and teaching
while working remotely was hard,” she wrote. “Now we are tired and drained and
nearly two years in. Doing it all over again feels insurmountable.”

Some parents whose children are learning remotely are
upset that they aren’t in school in person. Some whose children are learning in
person are upset that they can’t be remote. Many are torturously ambivalent,
trying to claw good solutions out of situations that offer none.

“I don’t want him to miss out on weeks of school, and
it looks like omicron is with us for at least that long,” wrote Heather Malin,
whose 5-year-old son is in kindergarten in person in New York City this week.
“It was an agonising decision. Will he be safe? Will the school have the
resources to test and adequately mask everyone? I’m scheduled to have surgery
for breast cancer in a few weeks, and I am terrified that we’ll come down with
COVID (which is bad enough) and my surgery will be delayed.”

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Erika Behling, whose 13-year-old daughter is attending
school in person in Silver Lake, Wisconsin, said that one relative was
currently hospitalised and another had a serious health condition.

“My child is vaccinated and diligently masks, but we
live in a fairly rural area where the pandemic has become politicised,” Behling
wrote. “As the numbers rise, we feel the walls closing in around us. My
13-year-old has more compassion than the vast majority of adults I see in this
area. And she’s scared. As parents, we feel utterly helpless.”

Many parents said they didn’t trust other members of
their communities to take precautions.

“I sent my kids to public school in more robust masks
than they usually wear, but I don’t have any other way to protect them,” wrote
Andrea Rease, a health care worker in San Francisco who said there were some
unvaccinated children and parents at the school where her three 5-year-olds
attend kindergarten. “They are freshly vaccinated, but I don’t feel the relief
I thought I would.”

Others described the toll that a year or more of
remote learning had taken on their children, and the pain of suddenly returning
to it.

Danielle Kline Haber wrote that about an hour into
remote learning Monday, after months in which her son’s school in Hamilton
Township, New Jersey, had been open, “our 14-year-old came out from his room
and said, ‘I had forgotten how much I hate virtual learning.’” In a follow-up
interview, she said she was exhausted from the “constantly shifting guidance.”

Marise, a mother in Philadelphia — who asked to be
identified by her middle name because she did not want to cause conflict at her
children’s private school before she could transfer them to public school,
which is open in person — said that her children, ages 6 and 8, had suffered mentally
and academically from remote learning.

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“Our school is still operating as though it is March
2020,” she said, adding that she had no idea when the school would reopen;
administrators plan to test the entire student body Tuesday before deciding.

She is a nurse and can’t work remotely, and while her
husband can do so this week, they will have no access to child care once he has
to return to the office.

“Schools should be the absolute last thing to close,”
Marise said. “I can eat in a restaurant today, but my kids are home. This is
nonsensical.”

Kate, who asked that her last name be withheld because
speaking publicly could jeopardise her job, is also frustrated that schools in
her town, Maplewood, New Jersey, are remote this week. She said she feared that
even when they reopened for in-person learning, her children — ages 7 and 10 —
would be sent home because every student in a class is defined as a close
contact if one person in the class tests positive, even if all students were
masked.

“My kids were out of school for 14 months. I can’t do
this again. It’s put me over the edge,” Kate wrote, adding that she supported
the school’s mask requirement but opposed its quarantine protocol. “It is
incredibly frustrating to see kids in school across the country where families
have done nothing to prevent the spread of COVID, and then to live in a
community with around 80%-90% vaccination rate and watch my kids struggle to
have a normal school experience.”

Susannah Krug, a mother of four school-age children in
North Plains, Oregon, said she had kept her 14-year-old and two 17-year-olds
home Monday. But she sent her 10-year-old — who has had his first vaccine shot
— to school “even though I’m scared to death.”

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“He just did so poorly when school was closed for 18
months,” she wrote.

Alissa Greene, a New Yorker whose 5-year-old
daughter’s school is operating in person, said the family had “chosen to keep
her in school even though a part of me wants to keep her home.”

“I think her school is doing everything they can, but
I’m still apprehensive,” Greene said, adding that increasing paediatric
hospitalisations made her more fearful now than last fall, even though her
daughter is vaccinated. “We lost her grandmother to COVID in April 2020 and
very nearly her grandfather too. That’s the hardest part for me, knowing how
badly it can go, how mysteriously this virus can affect people, and feeling
like I have to send her out to take her chances with it.”

The latest surge, she and other parents said, has
brought an uncertainty that feels overwhelming.

“The omicron calculus is far more wearying than the
other COVID math we’ve had to do,” wrote Joe Roland, of Great Barrington,
Massachusetts, whose household ranges in age from his 9-year-old son to an
86-year-old relative. “Whether it be from attrition throughout the pandemic, or
the multiple variables — definitely more contagious, likely less dangerous,
still don’t know what we don’t know — the last few weeks seem as hard as any
we’ve had since the beginning of all of this.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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