Two years into the pandemic, and it feels like despite, or maybe because of the Omicron wave, we’re just giving up on protecting the kids and it has a huge toll on parents. There are unique challenges and stressors for kids of different ages, but with kindergarteners and a toddler, the past couple of months have been full of anxiety about health, testing, school closures, and work. Nearly every parent I know is going through the same thing with their kids, the schools, and their jobs, but it doesn’t seem like we are doing anything about it collectively.
Every day since right around Thanksgiving seems to have brought another positive test of a close contact, rumors of schools going virtual again, neighboring school districts shutting down, recreational activities scheduled, rescheduled, canceled, and then back on again, and new quarantine guidance that conflicts with the previous guidance. It leaves parents and the schools in complete confusion about what to do to keep their kids safe and to maintain some normalcy in schedule. Good luck figuring out the graduate level calculus needed to understand when to test and when a kid can return after a close contact.
In a single one week period, we had new guidance from the school district on quarantining, new but different guidance from the daycare, a teacher at daycare test positive with potential exposure risk, notification of a positive rapid test with no follow up on PCR from recreational basketball our kids had done that morning, and the next school district over announcing they’d go virtual for the rest of the month. Actually, the close contact at daycare and the potential one from basketball came hours apart on a Sunday night, leaving us hours to figure out care coverage plans and how to balance work for a week with a toddler at home.
Not only is it difficult to know what to expect when these things happen, but it seems that no one is actually communicating what’s going on to parents either. We only learn about cases in our kids' classrooms when the kids tell us who was sent home or who was on zoom that day. We only find out about other classes completely shut down and an entire table all testing positive the same day through group texts with other parents or talking with them on our walk over to the school in the morning. We have no idea what’s going on with the other kids in their skating lessons, in swimming, or after school care either. We can’t keep our kids out of every social setting, yet it feels like every one is yet another huge risk, especially with limited information.
Remember back at the beginning of the pandemic when we were excited to get contact tracing and exposure notifications on our phones? Nothing ever came of that and it’s been a complete failure. Even manual contact tracing, what I remember as a staple of the daily briefings from Cuomo and Murphy, seems to have gone completely away, probably because there’s no point with this many people testing positive and overwhelming the tracers. But back then, we were also flattening the curve to help protect the elderly and the children. It feels like we’ve forgotten about that as well.
Yes, our kindergarteners are vaccinated. They got their shots almost the first weekend it was even possible. But even still, we don’t want them getting COVID. If somehow the vaccine doesn’t work as well for them, hospitalization would be terrifying. There’s also the potential of the long COVID effect on them, and having respiratory issues for the rest of their lives and as they are growing and developing would be horrendous. Even if they got only “mild” symptoms, having them home sick prevents us from getting work done and is physically and emotionally draining. Plus, they could always spread it to the rest of us and we don’t need to get sick while trying to take care of them and work, nor do we need the toddler getting it.
And that’s the biggest thing that seems to be lost in the current COVID discussion; the kids who are still too young to be vaccinated. Our soon to be two year old can’t get the shot yet, and unless they make some incredible progress soon on the 2-5 year old trials, it appears we may be waiting years. During that time and now, we can’t afford for him to get sick or to end up home. He’s a tornado and needs attention constantly throughout the day, making work nearly impossible.
With him home for an entire week after one of the staff at his daycare, not one of his normal teachers he spends the whole day with, but another teacher who happened to be covering the end of day closing up when they combine classrooms, a situation he was only even in because I happened to have a late meeting that day and got him 20 minutes later than normal, work immediately dropped in priority to take care of him at home. And because it was just a potential exposure, he had no symptoms, felt completely fine, and we had to wait over a week to get him tested and return to school. Needless to say, there wasn’t much balance between work and family life.
A nearly two year old demands constant attention, especially him. While I recall the twins somewhat entertaining each other with playing, he only wants to spend time with us, eat, and throw things when not doing the first two. He goes from happily eating to being done and handing you his bowl to throwing it if you don’t take it fast enough in the blink of an eye, or as I frequently found out, in the time it takes to process what he’s doing while splitting attention with a video call. I couldn’t focus enough to get any deep work done, and couldn’t subject others to meetings with me one on one or even leading others because of the background distraction - and the foreground one the times he decided to come over and wave to everyone on screen.
And during this, I definitely bore the minority of the brunt of taking care of him. My schedule generally allows me to have more flexible time in the mornings, so I generally took him until lunch or naptime. My wife though, sacrificed every one of her afternoons to be able to occupy him with toys and food after he woke up. And this is the biggest problem facing society right now, that the impact of COVID on kids and parents is unequally heaped on women and leading to more and more sacrifices with work and careers. People at work without kids don’t understand why parents need so much extra time and flexibility and think they’re getting away with something, and those who do often don’t have the same demands on them, whether due to family or other coverage help, or because they don’t have working spouses with similar demanding jobs. I, fortunately, have largely found a team that does get it, but it’s still hard to not feel the pressure throughout the day and the week. No wonder more parents are leaving the workforce or switching careers now.
After this week, he was able to return to school as normal and we haven’t had additional disruption yet, but it feels like the clock is ticking. Nearly all of our friends and coworkers with kids have had similar experiences, from potential exposure to actually testing positive to experiencing noticeable symptoms, even those fully vaccinated. The vaccine and boosters seem to be helping, but the youngest kids, those too young still to get the vaccine, are suffering, and parents are suffering while trying to provide unanticipated child care, some for sick kids, while potentially having symptoms themselves, and balancing work. It’s an impossible task and the sheer anxiety and stress surrounding the situation can be debilitating.
Other parents are helping either. Because of these pressures, many are sending their kids into school because they have to, even when they have symptoms or may have even tested positive. Unless barred at the door, what’s to stop them from trying and having their children expose numerous others at school. Because we can’t afford to have them miss school, there’s no alternative and we make the problem even worse.
Because of all of this, it’s become easier and easier to do and resort to the things we said we never would as parents; the things we managed to avoid for five long years but just can’t anymore, like hours of TV and iPad time. While Lego and coloring are the preferred activities and can actually hold the twins' attention now, both need some supervision which just isn’t possible while working, so it’s Daniel Tiger and Ocotonauts to the rescue yet again. We’ve even given up insisting they at least play the educational games on the iPad and just let them watch shows on it now. Our youngest has seen more TV from them watching it and us not really preventing him than the twins saw in their first four years. We realized we were starting to use food as a mechanism to keep him entertained and quiet too, I’m sure building bad habits he’ll probably need years of therapy to unwind.
Yet again, there’s no end in sight of any of this. While remote work has helped at least give us the option to even work while having kids home, it’s quickly become such an essential thing that it doesn’t feel special or even all that helpful any more. The vaccines we held out for and waited over a year to be able to finally have a return to normalcy for are already negated by the spread and how little risk management is happening around these kids. We’re still waiting on vaccines for the under five year old kids, but it appears we’ll be waiting a while, and even once we get them, will it substantially change any of the risk calculus? We’re still just as likely to live in a world of unknowns, anxiety, and lack of care and support structure for parents and kids anyway. In reality, the pandemic didn’t really change this, it just made it more clear that we’ve always left parents to fend for themselves and deal with things as much as they can.