“While 3 feet of distance will be encouraged where possible, the priority…is the full return of students.”
Reading through the extensive list of what to expect as my six-year-old prepares to start first grade in a second pandemic academic year, these words jump out at me from the school district website. They are included as one in a list of bullet points detailing the cutting-edge air purifiers, mask requirements, touchless hand sanitizer stations, and rapid testing—overlapping layers of safety measures meant to stand between my beloved child, the children of so many other mothers and fathers in my city, and the specter of death. This is the admission that there isn’t any guarantee that any of this will protect her, really, but we also cannot simply stop the clock on her education until this season of the virus is over.
I ask myself the question that has been a steady refrain since March 2020:
Am I doing the right thing?
Like presumably every other parent of a child under 12 and not yet eligible for the Covid vaccine, I do the grim math of yet another school year under the shadow of a pandemic, adding and subtracting the various values that must be considered: social emotional development against the safety of a household bubble, the heroic efforts of a dedicated teacher against the inherent absurdity that was online kindergarten, the school district text messages alerting to positive cases and quarantine notices or a repeat of the five months of trying to do my full-time job while also caring full time for my bored little kid and her toddler sister, all weighted alongside the snaggle-toothed smile of my daughter, and the constantly suppressed desire to scream from the depths of my soul: how are we still in this?
And that’s before I start to do the same math on a larger scale for the parish where I serve. There are the children we will only see on a Zoom screen until a vaccine is available for them (please God let the vaccine be available soon) and the parents who won’t attend what limited in-person services we can offer because they fear carrying the virus home to those same kids or their own elderly parents. I weigh these with the question if I’m being reckless with everyone’s lives by offering the mass at all. Because this time has certainly brought home the reality that there is no choice that doesn’t carry its own risk.
Some decisions are easy. The vacation bible school I signed my kids up for in my hometown that announced indoor activities and voluntary masking for a group who were all under 12 was an easy no. The small outdoor birthday party of kids where all the parents were vaccinated, yes, though the parents all looked uncomfortably at each other as our kids started bringing us balloons to blow up, not sure of the etiquette in this new world where breath is dangerous. But school is not an easy decision.
I never thought that we would be here, once again, doing this pandemic math. I never thought we would be in a place where politicians and pundits actively worked against school systems and parents trying to keep their children as safe as they possibly can. When I talk to a friend who is a schoolteacher in my hometown and they describe the 41 children in their classroom on the first day of school with only four wearing masks, I give thanks that my family settled in a region and a city where vaccination rates are high, positivity rates are low, and hospital ICUs haven’t filled back up yet. I give thanks that whether out of fear or civic duty or religious faith and dedication to the health and safety of their siblings in God, the members of my community have mostly done everything they can to build a hedge of protection for those in their midst not yet vaccinated. That, given the choice of whether to take a lifesaving, virus ending shot, they have said yes on behalf of those who do not yet have a choice.