When children test positive for the coronavirus at my children’s Virginia elementary school, parents don’t normally get much information.
But the one emotion I have never felt while reading those emails is annoyance toward the parents of the children who tested positive. I have felt sympathy for them and concern for their families. I have felt mortified on their behalf, knowing how awful I would feel if I were in their place.
The way I have looked at it is we’re in this together. We’re all exhausted but doing our best to keep our school community safe.
Then a message popped up on a Facebook page for the school community last week. It was written by a staff member and came at the end of a particularly trying week at the school, one that saw students in seven classes forced into quarantine because at least one child in each had tested positive for the coronavirus. One of those classes belonged to my 9-year-old son.
“Many of you were inconvenienced by the quarantine protocols enacted in your child’s classroom this past week,” the message read. “Several of those class quarantines would have been avoided if people had given their actions careful consideration before doing them. … The actions of a few this week have upset many families and caused distress, as well as left our staff stunned and, frankly, a little hurt at the disregard for our community’s health and well-being.”
It went on to list three actions that had caused some of the disruptions. Two of them: children sent to school before their quarantine time was up, and children sent to school while their families awaited their coronavirus test results.
Those were concerning, but they weren’t as surprising as the third reason given. That paragraph read: “Do not withhold positive test results. All positive Covid-19 test results are reported to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH). All APS schools have Public Health Nurses (PHN) in their clinics, and they are given notification of these results by the VDH. There may be a delay in notification due to the backlog of paperwork, but the results will eventually make it to the school. Sending your child to school knowing they have a positive test is purposely putting the community at risk and will also spur the quarantining of an entire classroom.”
I read it again before I accepted what it was saying: Parents had lied. Parents had put their individual needs before the safety of their community. They knew their children, showing symptoms or not, were carrying a potentially deadly virus, and they sent them anyway into a building where they would spend nearly seven hours around staff members and dozens of other children.
Much discussion has swirled in recent days around one of the first actions Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) took after being sworn in to office. He issued an executive order that makes masks optional in schools. Signed Saturday, it gives parents the power to choose whether their children take that precaution or not.
Not surprisingly, the order has been met with resistance. Heads of school systems have pushed back, saying they plan to keep their mask requirements in place. Experts have questioned the legality of the order (a lawsuit has already been filed). And parents on both sides of the issue have voiced their opinions.
One of those parents was White House press secretary Jen Psaki. She posted a tweet that identified her as an Arlington County parent and thanked the school system, which has vowed to keep its mask mandate in place, “for standing up for our kids, teachers and administrators and their safety in the midst of a transmissible variant.”
Another Arlington parent, Mary Vought, wrote an op-ed that was published by The Washington Post. In it, she criticizes the school system’s decision to maintain its mask mandate. She wrote that Youngkin’s order “places the choice back where it belongs — with the parents, not the government bureaucracy.”
I’m also an Arlington parent and I want my children to be able to attend school again without having to wear masks. I also know that it is not yet safe enough for them to do that, and that if parents are handed that decision, not all of them will put the community’s well-being before their own wants and needs.
I understand why some parents might feel pressured to drop off children who have tested positive for the coronavirus at school and hope for the best. Not everyone has understanding bosses or backup child care. I write often about the pressures of poverty, and I wish we had systems in place that offered those parents more support.
But right now, we don’t, and we know children are coming to school sick. Taking away one of the few safety measures Virginia schools have in place against a virus that has already killed more than 850,000 people in the United States may seem a respectful bow to parents. In reality, it is a blatant disregard for the youngest and most vulnerable among us. It is accepting that children will be more likely to pass the virus on to classmates and educators and that they will take it home to relatives who may not get a mild case.
It’s accepting that more students may test positive and have to temporarily return to virtual learning or miss weeks of school.
In catering to some parents, Youngkin stands to fail many of Virginia’s kids. His executive order is not based in reality. It doesn’t acknowledge that in choosing what’s best for their families, parents will also be making decisions for other families.
“Our choice to wear a mask helps protect other people,” Robin Wallin, director of the school health division for the Fairfax County Health Department, says when we talk on a recent evening. “This is something we can do for each other. … It’s about caring for each other.”
I reached out to Wallin to find out whether Fairfax was also seeing parents send children to school who had tested positive for the virus. Wallin says she hasn’t heard of any reports, but she doesn’t doubt it’s happening: “It happened during normal times.”
My children are 7 and 9, and they don’t complain about wearing their masks. They’ve grown used to them. They have also, so far, avoided catching the virus, even after spending all day in class with students who later tested positive.
I hope that under Youngkin, children in Virginia and elsewhere will once again be able to walk into schools safely without masks covering their faces. But I hope that comes about because we have gotten transmission of this virus under control, not because of politics or lawsuits.
When I ask Wallin whether she believes parents are at the done-trying, done-caring stage of the pandemic, she says people may need to be reminded that we will once again be at a place where masks aren’t needed.
“It has the feeling of forever, but it’s not going to be forever,” she says. “Just hang in there. Let’s care for each other for a little bit longer.”
Read more from Theresa Vargas