Note: This piece was written on Tuesday, Sept. 7.
Let me start by saying how much I love the public schools in our rural North Carolina county.
My son has had a wonderful experience at our local elementary school, when he’s been able to attend, over the past three years. Over those same three years, I’ve worked for our district as the Spanish-language liaison.
Now, let me start again by saying how much my heart is broken.
Those three years have been years marked by COVID-19. My son’s kindergarten year, cut short. His first grade year, with three different teachers, a period of virtual school, six months of home schooling, two months in person. Second grade, now, defies description.
I haven’t said much to anyone about what I’m witnessing. I have to connect with people on all sides of the spectrum without putting them off, so I can get them the information they need. I flow like water through beliefs, terrors, confusions, desperations. With each phone call, I close my eyes and try to make myself a blank slate, until I can read where this person is at and respond as compassionately, as firmly, as helpfully, as urgently, as effectively as I can.
In the high country of Appalachia, with fewer than 18,000 residents in our county, it took COVID a while to reach us. But it’s here now. Since 7:30 this morning, I’ve done nothing but make COVID calls. In normal times, my job involves a variety of things: tutoring newly arrived students; interpreting Individualized Education Programs; refereeing meetings with counselors and principals; translating documents; relaying messages about soccer practice, the school play, a forgotten trumpet. But now it’s just COVID. All day and every day, COVID.
Yesterday, I foolishly didn’t look at my email for a few hours. It turned out I’d missed an entire class going into quarantine ― a dozen students whom I failed to call, who showed up to school this morning only to be sent home again. “But my child was wearing his mask,” one mother says, bewildered, when I finally call. “Why does he have to quarantine?” 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 Health and Human Services toolkit, our local health department and our school nurses, our local school board has decided to not require masks. As a result, roughly 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 been wearing masks. A estimate of the incidence rate within our school system is 1175/100k, almost six times the CDC’s threshold for “highest risk of transmission in schools.”
I make call after call. “I’m so sorry. Your child has been exposed. You need to come pick her up.” “I’m sorry, yes, I know you had to ask off work yesterday too. Yes, I know he just had a test last week.” “I’m so sorry. I know that she just got well on Friday.” “Yes, if he has a cough, you should take him for a test.” “The fever still isn’t better? Ay, and the little ones? Yes, you’d better call your doctor.” “Yes, señora, I understand that you would feel safer keeping them all home this week, but if you do, they’ll be counted absent.”
“A parent calls me to ask anxiously, 'Is it safe for the children to be at school?' 'Not really,' I say. Three days later, she calls to tell me her two oldest are home sick. Before I can hang up, another mom beeps in: four children, all sick, fevers, coughs, the second one coughing so hard she can’t catch her breath.”
It starts before I’ve had breakfast. A mother calls: She is not allowed to take another day off work. A father laments: I don’t have a car to come pick up my child. Another dad: I’m the only one who can drive. I have the car at work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Where can I get him tested before or after those hours? A mom who thought a quarantine is supposed to last 40 days because the word for “quarantine” (cuarentena) is so similar to the word for “forty” (cuarenta). A mom who says she heard that you can die from the vaccine and is genuinely afraid to get it, although both her children have been in quarantine longer than they’ve been in school, and are now home with fevers as they await the results of their second tests of the school year. A parent who calls me to ask anxiously, “Is it safe for the children to be at school?” “Not really,” I say. Three days later, she calls to tell me her two oldest are home sick. Before I can hang up, another mom beeps in: four children, all sick, fevers, coughs, the second one coughing so hard she can’t catch her breath. They’re heading to pick up a nebulizer.
Between 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 here from a conflict-filled country to the south; her sister was just freed from months in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention. Another transition for her felt ominous. “Will you still come see me?” she asked nervously. “What if I don’t know where to go?”
“I’ll be there,” I promised. “I’ll find you. We’ll figure it out together.”
Well. I haven’t been there. I haven’t found her. She’s been in quarantine already. She’s currently at home sick. I’m home with my son. Even if I could go see her, should I? Would it be safe? What will her test results be this time? What would have happened if I’d gone? I wonder if she feels afraid and lonely in the new school. I wonder if she feels like I’ve let her down. I feel like I’ve let her down.
I think about all the kids being let down right now. Missing their English lessons, their speech therapy, their football practice, their dance classes. Failing their tests, a lump in their throats, unable to do the packets of worksheets sent home. Anxious parents hovering, encouraging, scolding, not able to help them because they don’t speak the language. Our local health department reports that 79% of the kids in quarantine right now are there because of school contacts, not household contacts. If everyone were wearing a mask, how much of this could not be happening? Truly, it breaks my heart.
As for our family, we kept our son home the first two days of school, to see how things would go. Days 3-5, school was closed due to flooding. By the next Monday, his class was in quarantine for all of week two. The third week, they went for one day, and then there was an early dismissal and another day of closure due to another storm. After that, we withdrew him. We’re so privileged to be able to do so. And it, too, breaks my heart.
They say that anger covers sadness or fear. I’ve had my angry moments. I’ve felt the fear. And now I’m just sad.
Sadie Kneidel (she/her/hers) is a writer and naturalist with degrees in Spanish, women’s and gender studies, and clinical mental health counseling. She is proud to provide Spanish-language services to her local community in western North Carolina.