Note: This article was written on Tuesday, September 7th.
Let me start by saying how much I love the public schools in our rural North Carolina county.
My son had a wonderful experience at our local elementary school, when he was able to attend, for the past three years. During those same three years, I worked for our district as a Spanish speaking liaison.
Now let me start over by saying how broken my heart is.
These three years were years marked by COVID-19. My son’s kindergarten year, cut short. His first school year, with three different teachers, a virtual school period, six months of home schooling, two months in person. The second year, now, defies description.
I haven’t told anyone much about what I’m witnessing. I need to connect with people from all sides of the spectrum without discouraging them, so that I can get them the information they need. I flow like water through beliefs, terrors, confusion, despair. With every phone call I close my eyes and try to make a blank slate, until I can read where this person is and respond with just as much compassion, firmness, help, urgency and d efficiency as possible.
In the high Appalachian region, with less than 18,000 residents in our county, COVID has been slow to reach us. But it’s here now. Since 7:30 a.m. this morning, I’ve only been making COVID calls. Normally my job involves a variety of things: tutoring newly arrived students; interpret individual education programs; arbitration meetings with school counselors and principals; translation of documents; relay messages about playing football, the school play, a forgotten trumpet. But now it’s just COVID. All day and every day, COVID.
Yesterday I stupidly didn’t check my email for a few hours. It turned out that I had missed an entire class by quarantining a dozen students I failed to call, who showed up to school this morning to be sent home. “But my child was wearing his mask,” a mother says, stunned, when I finally call. “Why does he have to quarantine himself?” Because the other child, the positive case, was not wearing a mask, I explain.
Against the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state’s toolkit for health and social services, our local health department, and our school nurses, our local school board decided not to require masks. As a result, around 10% of our school community is in quarantine. Based on our district’s COVID policy, most of these children would not be in quarantine if their classmates had worn masks. An estimate of the incidence rate within our school system is 1175 / 100k, nearly six times the CDC threshold for “highest risk of transmission in schools”.
I call after call. “I’m so sorry. Your child has been exposed. You have to come get her.” I’m sorry, yes, I know you had to take time off from work yesterday too. Yes, I know he just had a test last week. “I’m so sorry. I know she just recovered on Friday. “Yes, if he coughs, you should get him tested. “The fever is still not better?” Yes, and the little ones? Yeah, you better call your doctor. “Yes, Señora, I understand that you would feel safer keeping them all at home this week, but if you do, they will be counted away.” “
A parent calls me anxiously asking, “Is it safe for children to be in school?” – Not really, I say. Three days later, she calls me to tell me that her two oldest children are sick at home. Before I can hang up, another mother beeps: four children, all sick, fevers, cough, the second coughing so hard that she can’t catch her breath.
It starts before I have had breakfast. A mother calls: she is not allowed to take another day off. A father laments: I don’t have a car to pick up my child. Another dad: I am the only one who can drive. I have the car at work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Where can I get it tested before or after these hours? A mom who thought a quarantine was supposed to last 40 days because the word for “quarantine” (cuarentena) is so similar to the word for “forty” (cuarenta). Mom who says she heard you can die from the vaccine and is really scared to get it, although her two children are in quarantine longer than they were at school and are now at home with a fever while waiting for the results of their second tests of the school year. A parent calling me anxiously asking, “Is it safe for the kids to be in school?” “Not really,” I say. Three days later, she calls me to tell me that her two oldest children are sick at home. Before I can hang up, another mother beeps: four children, all sick, fevers, cough, the second coughing so hard that she can’t catch her breath. They’re going to get a nebulizer.
Between two calls, I find myself resting my forehead on the desk.
At the end of last year, a student and I talked about her transition to a new school this fall. Her family fled from a conflict-ridden southern country; her sister has just been released from months of immigration and customs detention. Another transition for her was threatening. “Do you want to come see me anyway?” she asked nervously. “What if I don’t know where to go?” “
– I’ll be there, I promised. “I’ll find you. We’ll find out together.
Well. I haven’t been there. I couldn’t find it. She’s already in quarantine. She is currently at home ill. I am at home with my son. Even if I could go see her, couldn’t I? Would it be safe? What will his test results be this time around? What would have happened if I had left? I wonder if she feels scared and alone in the new school. I wonder if she feels like I let her down. I feel like I let her down.
I think of all the children who are abandoned right now. Missing their English lessons, their speech therapy, their football practice, their dance lessons. Without their tests, my throat was tied, unable to do the bundles of worksheets sent home. Anxious parents who hover, encourage, scold, unable to help them because they do not speak the language. Our local health department reports that 79% of children in quarantine right now are because of school contact, not family contact. If everyone wore a mask, how could this not happen? Really, it breaks my heart.
As for our family, we kept our son at home for the first two days of school, to see how things were going. Days 3-5, the school was closed due to flooding. The following Monday, her class was in quarantine for the entire second week. The third week they went there one day and then there was an early layoff and another shutdown day due to another storm. After that, we took it out. We are so privileged to be able to do this. And that too breaks my heart.
It is said that anger covers sadness or fear. I had my moments of anger. I felt the fear. And now I’m just sad.
Sadie Kneidel (she / she) is a writer and naturalist with a degree in Spanish, Women and Gender Studies and Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She is proud to provide services in Spanish to her local community in western North Carolina.
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