When New York City’s public school system went remote last fall, Selena Carrion, an English language arts teacher, knew her workload would be daunting. “I had to learn how to manage 30 children online while at the same time helping my own child with her virtual pre-K classes,” she recalls.

Like most parents juggling work and caregiving, Carrion found it difficult. But it was also a relief to have her daughter at home. “She was born with a very rare disease called biliary atresia,” Carrion explains. By the time she was 1, she had undergone a liver transplant, and she’s been on immunosuppressants ever since. Although the drugs stop her body from rejecting the foreign tissue, they also put her at higher risk for covid-19 complications. “She is so vulnerable; I was grateful to be able to keep her protected,” her mother says.

Now, with most schools back to in-person learning and some offices calling their workers back, Carrion and other parents with vulnerable children face a difficult decision: Do they send their children to school where their health could be threatened, or do they keep them at home and potentially risk their livelihoods?

It’s a decision they’re having to make just as the more contagious delta variant is leading to a surge in pediatric cases. “We are dealing with a different beast than we were in the last school year,” says Heather Haq, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and a pediatric hospitalist at Texas Children’s Hospital. “The virus has leveled up; it’s smarter.” Some employers have even delayed their return-to-office plans as a result, but for working parents with vulnerable children, experts predict the coming months could be the hardest yet. “We’re entering a really challenging phase of the pandemic, especially for children,” Haq says.

Here’s how four working mothers with vulnerable children are dealing with what could be their most stressful stretch of the pandemic:

‘I had no choice’

Lori Romero is a single mom who lives in Arizona. Her 10-year-old son has a range of conditions that put him at higher risk for covid-19 complications, including epilepsy and lupus. While she’s worked from home throughout most of the pandemic, her employer asked staff to voluntarily return to the office three months ago. For the time being, she is staying remote, but she doesn’t know how long that will last, so she made the hard decision to send her son to school in person. “I’m a single mom with no financial assistance,” Romero says. “I had no choice but to send him back.”

So far, she says, her son enjoys being at school — he has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and found remote learning hard — and Romero is relieved he is getting the individualized attention she knows he needs to thrive. “I’m not a teacher, so I didn’t know how to help him do well from home when I had to work at the same time,” Romero says. But his health issues and the situation in Arizona are making her anxious for his well-being. “Our governor passed a state law that prohibits mask mandates in our schools. At the same time, we keep hearing about this new variant being more contagious,” she says. “I’m really scared for my son. His first lupus flare was so bad; I’m terrified to think what would happen if he got covid.”

‘We know what intubation looks like’

Alex Boatright, who lives in the D.C. area, was hoping her 5-year-old former preemie would be able to attend in-person classes this fall but soon realized she wasn’t comfortable with the covid-19 prevention measures they had in place. “They couldn’t guarantee even three feet of social distancing,” she explains. That, along with the memories of her son’s three-month stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, led to her decision to home-school him this fall. “For people like us, the idea of your kid ending up in the ICU isn’t theoretical. It’s very real. We know what the machines sound like; we know what intubation looks like,” she says.

While Boatright’s husband has had to go back to his office a few days a week, her job as a music teacher allows her to work from home, and she expects to do so as long as needed. “It’s not ideal to teach lessons with ‘Sesame Street’ going in the background, but my students have been very understanding, and I know it’s a very privileged place to be,” she says. That doesn’t stop her from worrying about the impact the situation will have on her son, who is about to enter kindergarten. “I’m not concerned about his ability to excel academically at home for a little while, but I am concerned about the isolation,” she says. “Still, there is nothing more isolating than being in [the] hospital, so I think the wiser choice will be to wait until he can get the vaccine. I think we’d regret it if we didn’t.”

‘Most of the country has moved on’

In the early months of the pandemic, Rachel Hoopsick, an epidemiologist and mother of two in Illinois, continued to send her immunocompromised 4-year-old daughter to day care. “She was wearing a mask, but none of the other children in her class were required to wear one,” she says. “When cases started to rise last fall, my husband and I decided we just couldn’t risk it anymore.”

Caring for their toddler daughter and infant son while working from home was tough, but it was arguably easier than the current situation. “This ‘reopening’ phase has been the most stressful part of the pandemic,” she says. “Last year, there was a sense of solidarity, of community. Now, most of the country has moved on.” That’s something people with vulnerable children are not in a position to do. “My daughter has had to be hospitalized twice in the past year for what would otherwise be minor infections in a person with a normally functioning immune system, so it’s terrifying to think what might happen if she were to be infected with covid-19,” Hoopsick says. “It will be a long time before our family can go back to normal.”

Hoopsick, who has recently started a new job, has confirmed with her employer that she can continue working remotely through the end of this year. If a vaccine isn’t available for her two young children by then, and she and her husband are unable to continue working remotely, their plan is for one of them to leave their job. “We are willing to make whatever sacrifices we have to in order to keep our children safe,” Hoopsick says. “Unfortunately, a lot of other families don’t have that option. Parents should not have to choose between providing for their families and keeping them safe.”

‘A one-income household’

For Carrion, the New York City teacher who has been told she has to go back to the classroom this fall, dropping out of the workforce isn’t realistic. “I can’t just resign. We’re a one-income household,” she says. But given her 5-year-old daughter’s health conditions, sending her to school in person feels unsafe. “She’s extremely high risk when it comes to getting illnesses. I would have opted for remote if that had been available this year,” she says.

Instead, she is considering sending her daughter to a private school. “They have better measures in place in terms of social distancing and masking, they have more control over things like vaccine mandates, and they also have smaller class sizes,” she says. “But I really don’t know if I’ll be able to afford it.”

Stéphanie Thomson is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.

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