At least that’s how I felt until I looked over at him. Slumped in a chair at our dining room table, he logged into his sixth class of the day and waited for his teacher to take attendance. His eyes had that tired look from computer eyestrain. His face projected boredom, a certain solemnness. But it was the look of apathy that was hardest for me to process.
My son is an extrovert who thrives on social interaction. I can remember taking him to the park when he was younger. He once ran up the stairs and over the bridge to the slide, and while waiting his turn, he made friends with the child in front of him. He asked the kid to play tag, the kid shrugged and off they ran.
This self-assuredness followed him through the years. Seemingly, the distinctive awkwardness of middle school eludes him. In both sixth and seventh grades, he has managed to climb the social ladder with not so much as a hint of self-consciousness.
In short, he — like most children — needs to be around his peers. He thrives on the social interaction that comes from being in a classroom.
In the middle of a global pandemic in which Florida emerged over the summer as a hot spot, the decision to not send our child back into a brick-and-mortar school seemed cut and dry. My husband works in a hospital, and by nature of his job, he puts himself — and our family — at a higher level of risk.
Additionally, I have a heart condition. Though the particular ailment is still a mystery, my resting heart rate has been on a steady decline. My average resting heart rate sits at 48 beats per minute, well below average. I’ve been hospitalized within the past few months and in 2017 for heart-attack-like symptoms.
Though I’m in the middle of figuring out what’s affecting my heart, it has been made clear by medical professionals that I’m a candidate for complications due to the coronavirus.
So since March, my husband and I have kept our circle small. Our son has had two visitors over — two of his best childhood friends. One friend came over for the weekend in April. He stayed at our house from Friday night until Sunday afternoon. That following Tuesday, his mother called us saying she tested had positive for the coronavirus. We quarantined immediately. My son and I were tested.
Five of the friend’s seven-member household came down with the virus. Luckily, we both tested negative, but it was enough to rattle my child. When we first sat down to discuss school options, he was on board with online learning, especially since it would just be for the first nine weeks of the school year.
But as we inched closer to the school’s start date, which had already been pushed back two weeks, my son’s resolve to go to school online started waning. Seeing friends display their new clothes and school supplies on Snapchat and Instagram made him feel left out. He wanted to go back to the classroom. At one point, he actually demanded to go back to the classroom.
By that time, our decision had been made and submitted to the school board.
For the physical health of our family, I knew we made the right decision. For my son’s mental health, though? I wasn’t so sure.
Each day that passed, he withdrew a little more into himself. In an effort to mitigate the mental strain of social distancing and isolation, my son talked to his therapist through telehealth and did one-on-one basketball practices with a trusted coach. Still, it wasn’t enough, and I knew it.
He has two friends whose parents have health conditions like mine and are taking coronavirus precautions as seriously as our family is. We’ve talked at length with these two families, and as a group, we decided to let the kids spend time together on the weekends. St. Petersburg is also home to a new pier, and my husband and I agreed to let our teenager hang out there (outside) with a few of his friends.
Still, he struggled with not being in the classroom. Usually an honor roll student, he saw his grades plummet in those first few weeks of the school year, and he has had trouble bringing them back up. He asked weekly why he had to opt for the online option. As frustrated and stressed as I was with all of it, I did my best to answer him. I reminded him that his dad works in a hospital, which increases our exposure. I reminded him that I was just hospitalized, once again, for heart palpitations and an abnormal EKG that prompted testing for heart attack and blood clots. I tried to remind him that I was not, in any way, trying to punish him, that this pandemic is taking its toll on everyone.
I didn’t mask my own difficult days, either. I talked about how the pandemic is affecting me mentally and emotionally so he knows even adults are just as frustrated and overwhelmed.
When those nine weeks came to an end, the school board gave families the opportunity to change their learning option from virtual to in-person and vice versa. Nearly 14,000 students opted to return to campus, starting Tuesday.
My child is one of them.
Like all households, the weight of the pandemic envelopes everyone in my family. In one way or another, we’re all writhing in our skin, wanting a return to what we perceived as normal. I now believe the “normal” we had known for so long is probably a distant memory, and now it’s time to adjust to whatever comes next.
At first, that meant adjusting to distance learning. But as I began to fear that my son might fail the eighth grade, we had to adjust again.
Choosing to send our son back is a huge risk for our health, and I still I can’t say with certainty that this the right decision for him or for our household. What I do know is that the options laid out for us seemed unfair no matter which direction we chose.
Nicole Slaughter Graham is a freelance writer based in Florida. Find her online at nicoleslaughtergraham.com.