Americas

How We Decided to Send Our Daughter Back to School

I still remember the nauseating feeling that consumed me when I put my daughter on a school bus two years ago and sent her off to prekindergarten.

I thought I would have until college, when I dropped her off to start her adult life, before I would feel such anxiety again.

Instead, it returned last month, when we got a survey from our public school system in Maryland asking whether we wanted to send our daughter, our firstborn, now a first grader, back to school two days a week during a raging pandemic.

After agonizing deliberations, which included tears and daily flip-flops, my husband and I decided that we would send her back.

I had spent many months reporting on the devastating losses that children have suffered since schools closed their doors in March. I had watched in dismay as public health agencies became politicized and the federal government and many states faltered in controlling the virus. And I had observed public schools across the country reopen with minimal outbreaks or transmission of the disease.

But as I wrestled with all these experiences, I will confess to also being influenced by the image of busy traffic outside the private schools near my home, where in-person instruction was in session, and where I often saw masked children excitedly running to greet their parents after class.

As the Feb. 5 deadline approached for us to decide, the debates between my husband and I grew as intense as the roiling public discourse around school reopenings.

He was heavily influenced by recent public health guidance, including last month’s report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicated schools could reopen safely with proper mitigation strategies. “The same science that prevents me from sitting inside a restaurant is the same science that says we should send her to school,” he said.

I was more influenced by the flip side of the realities we see daily. We do not live in rural Wisconsin, where the C.D.C. study was based; we live just outside the urban core of Baltimore. Our ZIP code has ranked among the highest in our county for infection rates, and even going to the pediatrician’s office during flu season is discouraged.

“The reasons I wouldn’t sit inside a restaurant or send her to school are one and the same,” I argued. “The virus is still changing, people are still dying.”

Another dynamic at the center of the reopening debate was also playing out in my house. I am a Black woman who lost her mother last month. All her life she had battled ailments — including strokes and societal stressors — that have contributed to the disproportionately deadly impact of the virus on my community.

My mother tested positive for the coronavirus in her Baltimore nursing home in November, and seemed in the clear with a negative test just a few weeks before she passed away. We will never know whether the virus expedited her death.

My husband is white, and his parents in upstate New York — one who works in health care and one who is in a priority age group — are among the one in 10 Americans who have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

With two journalists as parents, my daughter is hyperaware (unfortunately, perhaps) of the havoc the coronavirus has wreaked on the world. She has declared more than once that “coronavirus sucks,” and written for an assignment that she hopes “that corona stops so that we won’t dy.”

She is a compulsive mask wearer and hand washer, questions us about where we’re going on the rare occasions we leave the house and once even ran from her beloved grandmother when, in a moment of weakness, she tried to hug her.

She has adapted as well to virtual school as I could have hoped. But in a school that serves a high number of low-income children, she seems to be one of the few students in her class who is thriving — participating in discussion, completing assignments and receiving glowing reviews from her teacher.

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    No doubt it’s because she has everything she needs at home, including parents who have the wherewithal and privileges to ensure she comes out of this as unscathed as possible. I feared that sending her back would undo all of that if we were responsible for causing someone we love, including her educators, to get sick — or worse.

    When it was clear we were deadlocked, I did what I’ve always done when I was concerned about my daughter’s well-being in school: I contacted her teacher and her principal.

    The reporter in me kicked into gear as I peppered her principal — one of the best I’ve met in my 10 years on the education beat — about cohort sizes, safety measures in classrooms and the cafeteria, supplies (they had a soap shortage before) and assessment of the physical building, including ventilation and HVAC checks.

    But it was when I became a mother, in my most vulnerable state, that I got the assurance I needed.

    “Look, no judgment,” I asked tearfully. “But please, I’m scared. Tell me: Can you do this?”

    “Yes,” she said. “We can do this.”

    “Will you let me know if you ever feel you can’t?” I asked.

    “When have I not been honest with you?” she replied.

    Her teacher, whom I credit for my daughter thriving academically in remote learning, has been a total rock star during the pandemic. Her cheerful voice blares through our home as she diligently delivers lessons and encourages her students through the screen.

    So when she indicated that she was excited to return to teach students in person, I was persuaded. Not that the virus would disappear, or that there was zero risk or that the science wouldn’t change in just a few months.

    I was persuaded that I could come out of this dreadful school year feeling exactly as I felt on that summer day two years ago when I watched my baby girl get on the school bus for the first time: that I could trust the educators in her school to keep her safe.

    And that I had made the best decision I could.

    My daughter seems cautiously optimistic about going back to school. She has requested beaded braids and “prettier” masks for the occasion.

    When she returns to school on March 1, I will be terrified. And thrilled.

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