We live in Oregon, and in late December, when Governor Kate Brown announced that it would be up to districts to decide when schools can return to in person learning, my wife and I had no doubt that our children’s small charter school would be reopening as soon as possible. And I’ll be honest, that reality sat heavy with us. We live in a pretty rural part of Oregon. My wife works for the school teaching gardening classes, and as a teaching assistant, so we had a pretty good idea that the sentiment among administrators was to get students back in the classroom as soon as possible, regardless of COVID-19 rates. We are currently experiencing the highest death counts we’ve seen, nearly 4000 in one day.
That pattern is expected to continue for now, as cases are on the rise across the US, Oregon included. There is a vaccine being distributed, but that process is moving slower than expected, and it will likely be months before it really begins to make a difference. There is discussion of making teachers a priority in the next phase of vaccine distribution, but the timeline is still uncertain; in the meantime, hospitals are filling up with COVID-19 patients because of families being careless over the holidays. The US has logged more than 350 thousand deaths to COVID-19, and yet people in our community are still functioning under the dangerous misinformation that this is no more than the common flu. All of these facts gave Mel and I serious pause when making the decision to send our children back to school, but the pinch for us — like many people — is that my wife is now at high risk for COVID-19 complications.
She wasn’t at the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, in the fall, while our two older children were going to school on Zoom, all teachers were asked to teach from the classroom, and Mel was going into work. State regulations allowed our first grader to attend in person, and at the time, it seemed safe to allow her to participate. I was working from home, and managing Zoom school for our 11-year-old daughter, and 13-year-old son. But then in late October, Mel was admitted to the hospital when a bad case of pneumonia that had turned into septic shock. She spent three weeks there. She was in the ICU for three days, and during that time, it seemed pretty clear that I was about to become a widower. Luckily, that didn’t happen.
She never contracted COVID-19, and now, her doctor has advised us to stay home, keep our kids home, and avoid exposure because Mel is at high risk. And suddenly, it was like the street lights changed, and we became one of those families, with a high risk member, that all these COVID-19 restrictions were put into place to protect. By the time Mel was released from the hospital, after three weeks of fighting for her life, our children’s school had gone completely remote — even first grade. And as crazy as it was to have all five of us working and learning from home, I don’t know if I’d ever felt so grateful that we were all in the same place, staying safe.
But then, things turned again, and suddenly Mel and I were left to make a decision. Do we go against our doctor’s recommendation, and send Mel back to work, our kids back to school, and risk a life threatening COVID-19 infection? Or do we keep our kids home, and make the best of it? And as we were making this decision, we were hearing stories of other families at our children’s school who were faced with the same difficult decision. Some had elderly family members living with them; one was about to undergo a major surgery in a matter of days. Some just flat-out didn’t want to make this pandemic any worse. Many teachers were fearful of possible exposure, and taking COVID-19 back into their own households.
Of course, there is part of me that really wants our children back in school. I would love to go back to my office, too. I really want the world to function like it used to. It’s January, and come March, we will have been living like this, at home, hunkering down, for one full year. But I’m sorry, none of that is worth my wife’s life. It is not worth the lives of my community members. And I feel the decision to open our children’s school right now is premature.
Regardless of how I feel, though, our children’s school is opening up. And the only thing I have control of right now is my family, and so we have decided to keep our children home. The school will be sending homework packets for our children. Mel will be doing grading and other online work from home, so we are grateful for that, because we are not in a position to lose her income. I will continue to work from home, and we will be doing all of it with little or no instruction from our children’s teachers. But I know it’s the right choice.
I have no doubt there are many families, in our community and across the nation, who have been forced to make the same decision. It’s a difficult one, and not one that we should have to make. But if you are in the same boat, I’m with you, my friend.
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