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My Life In A COVID-19 Epicenter: We're Turning Our Teachers Into Sacrificial Lambs

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I’m sitting quietly by myself, sipping my coffee in peace – a rare moment of quarantined motherhood bliss. I’m trying not to think about the fall, or laundry, or the quest for disinfectant spray, or the cracker crumbs on the rug – or anything at all – because my mind is aching from overuse and I can feel a stress headache brewing in my temples, an anxiety attack swirling in my ribs. As someone with an anxiety disorder, I’ve spent the months of quarantine diligently working to keep my panic at bay and sacrificing productivity in other areas. My home improvement to-do list is just going to keep on growing, but it’s the thought that counts. Maybe in three years, I’ll get around to painting the bathroom.

My thoughts are interrupted by a ding from my phone. A news alert: Florida reports over 15,000 new COVID cases, smashing a national record. Just about fifty percent of those cases were reported in the tri-county area – Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties – which is somehow simultaneously the only home I’ve ever known, and yet now an eerie breeding ground of chaos and devastation. It all suddenly seems so ominous and unfamiliar.

My heart begins to race, thinking about my mother. I wonder if I’ll ever see her again. I think of my peers who have already lost family members – one who has lost a spouse – and the seemingly constant stream of obituaries that have come to replace Tiger King memes in my social media news feeds. The virus is here. It is real, and it is holding strong as it swirls over the lives of so many. I think about my own husband, who is diabetic, and my mind wanders to what life looks like three months from now: is he still here with us? I tell myself to get less aggravated with him when he turns the thermostat too high.

All of my friends, quite literally, are educators — and I have that striking realization as I think about them being marched into classrooms, into the jaws of COVID itself, by politicians who cloak themselves in cruelty and then call themselves pro-life. I think about the children of my friends who are educators. I imagine a kind-faced doctor having to tell them that their parents did not make it and then I think about how no one can comfort them, because contagion is suddenly everywhere. I think of our shameful, useless Governor and his lack of empathy, belief in science, or ability to be in charge of anything, let alone an entire state. I think about my children. My acknowledged privilege has afforded me the ability to keep my children safe and sheltered so far, but it feels like I’m only a couple tiptoed steps away from informing them that someone they love has died.

It’s clear that these four months and counting of being holed up inside our home are just the beginning. The easy part, as we now watch as our loved ones are expected to become sacrificial lambs to appease the tyrant who currently occupies the White House.

I feel the tears sting at my eyes as the text messages roll in: friends and family wondering if I’d seen the daily totals, or sharing links to various news outlets reporting the case record. I try to scroll through social media to calm myself down. Instead, I log onto Facebook and see that a childhood friend of mine has been on a ventilator for over a week.

I’m not a stranger to loss, namely a loss that was born from unlikely statistics. When we learned our daughter, Wylie, had a fatal series of heart defects, we were told that it was by chance as opposed to genetics. As our testing came back shortly after Wylie’s death, we would be told by a specialist that our risk of having a baby with a congenital heart defect was 0.8% — the low number that every woman with a healthy heart herself and no familial history of heart issues has. I was the 0.8%, which I get to think about every day as one of my children exists only in the form of ashes in an urn on a shelf. This is what I think of – her silver urn with little blue teddy bears on the sides – when someone laughs at those of us taking quarantine seriously and tells us that schools, in particular, should open. “The risk of death is so low,” they say – and I think of Wylie’s urn and then about the fact that they wouldn’t want to end up on the other side of those odds — because someone has to, and is going to. I think of what it is like to hold the stiff, blue-lipped body of your child in your arms and how nothing – absolutely nothing – is worth the risk of having to do so.

My nine-year-old son walks up to me then and asks for (what else is new?) a snack. I could tell him that he just had breakfast, but I don’t. I welcome the distraction and slice an apple for him, trying to focus on his sweet face and disheveled quarantine hair or the way his little sister is zonked out in the living room, staring robotically at her tablet. Pre-COVID me would have winced at the sheer idea of my children using a tablet, but my standards have dropped. It’s suddenly become all about survival. I think we’ve done every craft or science experiment on Pinterest at least twice.

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A friend texts me then that she just can’t go back to teaching – she just can’t. She’s updating her will, just in case, she says. She wants me to know where in her home she’s placing her documents. I feel my heart sink into sadness, anger, frustration, helplessness, hopelessness — all of it at once, intensified by a desire to just shout expletives at the top of my lungs and bury my face into the pint of Ben and Jerry’s I’ve stored in the freezer for just this occasion. (Coping skills for the win.) I tell myself I’ll check social media less, but I know that’s a lie. A mom on Facebook is throwing a tantrum because she did not sign up to be a teacher, because her child is so bored he just drew on the walls with Sharpie, because at this point she’s just sure that this boredom is more damaging than “a little cold, a little freaking flu!” I wince. I put down my phone and sigh.

Look, I understand: we miss school, too. I’m not an educator, either — though as a PTA mom, I like to joke that I’m their biggest cheerleader. I am a mother to a gifted student and also a student with county evaluated speech delays. One will undoubtedly be bored senseless as the year rolls on, no matter what virtual learning platform I meticulously choose for him. The other will fall more “behind” where she would be expected to be if COVID had never happened. But COVID happened. It continues to happen, wreaking havoc on human lives in the most unforgiving way, tainting recoveries with a fear of long-term impacts that are still completely unknown.

I don’t care if either one of my children learns a thing this year. I don’t care if one is eight years old before she can properly say “cream cheese” instead of “keem-chims.” I don’t care if one does literally nothing but eat apple slices and devour Rick Riordan novels from sun up until sun down just to exercise his desperately bored brain. Honestly, mine reached Sharpie-on-walls status early on in the quarantine, and my kitchen wall is just sort of dealing with the preschool stick-figure art it’s been adorned with. I don’t care about any of it, as long as the bodies of my children stay full of life, their eyelids able to open and stare back into mine with a glimmer, breath still coursing through their lungs.

Our society is flawed and it has let teachers carry the weight of said flaws for too long. When my son was in Kindergarten, an active shooter entered the high school just a street away and opened fire, killing seventeen people – students and teachers alike. My son finished that school year with therapy dog sessions, a nightmare-inducing fear of the words “Stoneman Douglas” and also feelings of comfort and safety from his teachers who threw themselves into rebuilding our children’s stability to the point where the canine cuddles were no longer needed. These were teachers who were mourning the loss of former students, of colleagues, but they worked diligently to convince our children that they were okay. Instead of America working on its out of control gun violence problem and implementing higher gun control standards, we just expected teachers to round up our babies and keep them quiet in a closet as if they were bulletproof. We expect them to take training sessions on tourniquets and dressing bullet wounds instead of daring to infringe on some pseudo-patriots’ alleged right to own a weapon of war.

We fail as a country, over and over, in so many regards and we expect our educators to pick up the slack and make it better.

Our educators cannot make this better, nor should they be expected to. They cannot adequately fight against a deadly novel virus for which there is no vaccination or treatment for. They cannot solve corporate greed or the inflexibility of employers or any other issue that, yes, most definitely needs to be addressed and a solution found. Our educators should not be asked to sacrifice their own lives, or their children’s lives, due to the want of a parent for their child to remain on grade level, or what grade level once was before there was a global pandemic underway. Those standards no longer exist.

Everything is different now, even if our old lives still don’t seem that out of reach yet.

“I’m bored.” My four-year-old throws her tablet to the floor with a thud. My nine-year-old agrees with her, which makes maybe the first time they’ve agreed about something in a week or two. “Let’s blow up the pool,” I suggest, because the only joy we’ve had this quarantine is the $32 inflatable pool I bought at WalMart years ago, which has sat in my garage in its box seemingly just waiting for a pandemic to occur.

I push my panic to the side, for now. I still feel it, tingling in my feet and in the tips of my fingers, but I won’t give in just yet. My children are splashing the water out of the pool in waves, likely lamenting about boredom again. We’ll probably make more brownies. I’ll probably stress eat all of them. My phone rings, and it’s a friend telling me that her cousin has tested positive and is in the hospital. “She has two little kids at home,” she cries. I listen, feeling the magnitude of the terror of this virus squeezing our lives into an unrecognizable shape.

The destruction is still happening. The world is still crumbling around us. I study my children’s faces as my friend talks, and I silently just hope that they make it to the part where we begin to rebuild. I hope that the biggest concerns we continue to have are simply delays in speech, or boredom, or quarantine hair, or too much tablet time, instead of saying goodbye to loved ones over FaceTime. I hope that one day, the world will open again, but this time not before it’s ready to do so safely.

And, maybe, also that we emerge from this with more compassion, empathy and togetherness as a society than we’ve ever seen before.

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