I pulled into the seemingly-endless pickup line that zig-zagged outside my kids’ elementary school, missing the pre-COVID days when parents could actually go inside. As I scrolled mindlessly through my email, a message popped up: “Subject: COVID PCR test results.”
Before I continue, let me clarify that I would NEVER send my kids to school with symptoms awaiting test results. But my in-laws had planned to visit for the weekend for the first time in months. Still not vaccinated, they asked us to get tested out of an abundance of caution. Dylan, my 10-year-old son, had just ended a class quarantine the day prior and had tested negative on the fifth day post-exposure, per CDC protocol. It was his first day out of the house in almost two weeks. Testing him again didn’t really make sense to me, but as a good daughter-in-law, I did as asked.
I clicked through the results one at a time for each family member: “Negative, Negative, Negative.” Then suddenly, my eyes did a double take. Under my son Dylan’s name, in large red letters, were the two words every parent dreads: “COVID-19 Detected.”
I dialed my husband, praying he would pick up.
“What’s up? I’m working,” he said in a rushed, annoyed voice.
I scrambled to get the words out, “I think Dylan has COVID.”
“That’s impossible,” he replied, now finally paying attention. “He hasn’t been anywhere! ”
“I’m calling the lab to confirm, but I am pretty sure PCR tests don’t lie,” I said, my voice starting to quiver as I spoke.
As the pickup line started to creep along, I went into panic mode trying to sort this all out ASAP. I called the lab, which confirmed that there was no mix up with the names. As I explained that my son just got out of quarantine and felt great, the man on the other end of the line responded definitively:
“Miss, 40% of those who test positive with COVID have no symptoms. And, our lab has never had a false positive before.”
I begged him for a retest, and didn’t stop until he agreed to let me come to the lab immediately. Before I could make my next call to the school, Dylan flung open the door and hopped into the car, almost too excited to get the words out. “Best day ever! Our teacher agreed to let us play football in masks at recess and I scored the winning touchdown!”
A few steps behind him, my daughter, Chloe, age eight, climbed into the car with her usual greeting: “Do you have a snack? I’m starving!”
They had both started to remove their masks, when I quickly stopped them. “Wait! I cried frenetically. “Don’t take your masks off!”
They stared at me with utter confusion. I knew their world was about to come crashing down.
“Mom, what is going on?” Chloe asked, giving me that “you’re weird” look.
“Does someone have COVID?” Dylan asked, picking up on my uneasiness.
My heart pounded with every word he spoke. I paused for a second and then blurted out matter of factly, “Yes — you do.”
His face froze. “That’s not possible!” he exclaimed in complete disbelief. “Plus, I’m not sick!”
Hiding my panic, I explained to him that due to his positive test result, I had an obligation to inform the school immediately so they could alert his class to quarantine.
“No!” Dylan shrieked, as if he was a toddler about to be held down for a shot. “You can’t call the school. My friends are going to be so mad! My class literally just got out of quarantine and had a fun day. We can’t go back to Zoom school again!
“Dylan, no one is going to be mad,” I promised him. “We have to stop the other kids from potentially spreading it.”
“But I don’t have it!” he insisted.
And I really believed he didn’t. But there is no such thing as “let’s wait a day until we figure this out” in a world with COVID. So I did the right thing and dialed the school.
When we arrived at the lab to test again, Dylan immediately asked the woman swabbing him about the accuracy of the test.
“99%,” she said.
Dylan, a numbers kid, retorted, “So you’re saying that 1 out of 100 times, it’s wrong. See Mom, that’s a pretty good chance!” The odds were truly not in our favor, but I loved his “glass half full” outlook.
As we were walking back to the car, my phone started buzzing. And buzzing. Nonstop. The email had come through noting the positive case in his class, and informing the parents that their kids needed to quarantine — again — for two weeks. My stomach flip-flopped with each text I read.
“Ugh, can’t believe they are home again Super annoying.”
“Any idea who has it?”
And then the one that hurt the most…
”First full day back and some idiot sent their kid to school sick!”
I ignored the texts and put my phone on silent mode, so I could drive home without running us off the road. I typically would have immediately chimed in on the gossip, using my rules of deduction to figure out who the culprit could be. But things felt very different now.
Despite my phone remaining locked on silent mode, it was far from silent once we got home. A sea of chimes continuously erupted from the kitchen desk where Dylan’s iPad was charging. The class text chain was blowing up. He scanned the texts and his face fell. I grabbed the iPad out of his hand and read the following exchange:
“First day back! Can you believe it? And again, we are stuck home.”
“I am soooooo pissed. Now I’m quarantined for my birthday.”
“I think it’s Sammy because I heard her cough in class.”
“Didn’t that new kid leave school early?”
“My mom is calling the principal that someone sent their kid to school sick.”
“See Mom,” Dylan said. “Now you get why no one can know. The kids are going to be so mad at me.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My son just tested positive for a highly contagious virus, and his main focus was feeling bad for his classmates. I can’t even imagine how much worse this would have been had he actually not been feeling well.
I commiserated with his feelings, as I too was full of concern about what the moms were thinking. I desperately felt the need to explain that no one had felt sick and that we were just being extra safe and testing out of precaution. But how was I going to set the record straight when Dylan insisted that no one could know? The pressure mounted as the moms’ texting frenzy continued. They were ravenous for information, as the school’s email was intentionally vague to protect our privacy.
At bedtime, I explained to Dylan (from an awkward six foot distance) that I felt I had to come clean to the moms who texted me, but I would ask them not to share the information with their children. He reluctantly agreed, but still was conflicted with guilt over the situation.
“Mom, can you tuck me in and cuddle for a few minutes?” he asked, looking up at me with his large hazel eyes. After all, he was still just a 10-year-old boy.
Technically, I was supposed to have my child quarantined from the family — no easy feat. It was only day one, so I couldn’t throw in the towel just yet.
“Let’s just not tonight,” I said, my heart breaking with every word.
“But I’m not sick!” he yelled, his anger mounting, as he started to fight back the inevitable flow of tears. I had no choice. Yes, he was supposed to quarantine, but at the same time, he was my son. I snuck in a quick hug, kissing the top of his dirty blonde head, as he wrapped his arms around my waist.
He went to bed anxious, not concerned that he would wake up with symptoms, but still terrified that his class would find out he was the one who got them stuck at home again for two endless weeks of Zoom school. I called the moms who had texted me to explain the situation. They all were sympathetic, and promised to keep it quiet from their children, understanding the stakes were unnecessarily high.
The next day, as Zoom school was coming to an end, the email we were all waiting for finally came in: COVID 19 Not Detected.
I immediately dialed the lab and got the director on the phone, excited to prove him wrong about his assertion that his lab had never had a false result.
The lab director, as confused as I was by the news, decided to resample the test. He informed me that the resampling was also negative, and that we may end our quarantine without needing to test again.
“That is great news,” I said, “but no one is going to believe us. Plus, there are 21 kids quarantining for 10 days because of a lab error.” I begged him to help undo the quarantine, and then I called the school nurse and shared his number. She explained to me that, like everything else this year, it was all unprecedented. There was no “unquarantine” procedure. She would need to take it to the administrators with no idea of what the outcome would be.
Dylan came downstairs moments later, rubbing his eyes from staring at the computer screen all day. I embraced him in the tightest hug ever as I shared the news that he was COVID free!
“I knew it!” he screamed. In my heart, I knew it all along too.
But then hours went by with no word from the school, and the panic set in again. Plus the mom “text-a-palooza” was back on, with everyone checking in to find out about the second result, and asking if their boys could go to their weekend sports.
“I am in a very strange spot,” I tried to explain, not knowing exactly what to say. “While your kids were not exposed from Dylan, it’s not my place to undo the class quarantine.” It was frustrating to think they were still stuck home despite our negative result.
And then at last … liberation! The email I so desperately longed for popped up just as unexpectedly as that first one I’d received in the school parking lot the day before:
“Dear Parents, We found out late today that the reported positive test result we announced yesterday was determined to be an inaccurate result and that another PCR test taken, as well as a resampling of yesterday’s test, both resulted in a negative result. Consultation with the Lab Director has determined that your child’s quarantine may be discontinued.”
Our one-day quarantine was over! I could finally breathe again.
Later that night, after perusing through Dylan’s texts, I realized he had actually “outed” himself to the class once the good news came in.
“Guys, check your email! We are out of quarantine!” he wrote.
His text was met by a bunch of “Yays,” followed by many hand clapping and smiley face emojis.
He added, “By the way, I was the one who tested positive. I was never sick. I just tested because my grandparents were coming. I didn’t want to say anything because I thought it was a mistake.”
“I can’t believe it was you.”
“I really thought it was Sammy.”
He continued, I felt soooooooo bad I got you quarantined. I didn’t want anyone to be upset with me.”
“I’m glad you are ok.”
Dylan finally felt comfortable enough to share his story because it had a happy ending. But the pressure of feeling responsible for a quarantine on a young child was all too much. And this child wasn’t even sick! What about the kids battling both an illness as well as tremendous guilt that their sickness has put their classmates’ lives on a two-week hold and forced them to be trapped home against their will?
So next time when that email comes in announcing the class quarantine, think about the emotional turmoil that family is going through. In these crazy times, one kid’s positive test precipitates a domino effect of disappointment in so many lives, preventing their friends from going to school and extracurricular activities, cancelling birthday parties and family get togethers, all in addition to exposing them to COVID.
Since Dylan only had “COVID for a day” we were fortunate to rebuild the domino chain in just 24 hours. However, our family learned a valuable lesson from this experience: to think twice before passing judgment, whether it comes to COVID or anything else. In the technologically savvy world our kids are living in, gossip has the power to spread like wildfire. And until the full story is out, the best thing anyone can do is say nothing at all.