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When a health reporter’s kids caught COVID, the system’s glaring faults suddenly became personal

When a health reporter’s kids caught COVID, the system’s glaring faults suddenly became personal

Picture of Giles Bruce
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

I spoke too soon in a recent column, when I wrote how I hoped my family wouldn’t have to deal with remote learning again.

A few days later, my two daughters were back home, attending class from their devices, having tested positive for COVID-19.

As the omicron surge wanes, parents with school-aged children are at the center of the national debate over how to endure this stage of the pandemic, with disputes over mask mandates, quarantine policies and vaccine requirements. For journalists, these parents are a good barometer of what issues to cover in the weeks and months ahead. As I know firsthand, their experiences offer a useful guide to just how difficult and confusing it remains for families contending with the health crisis.

My family’s story started one night after soccer practice, when one of my daughters declared she wasn’t feeling well. She woke up still sick the next morning. During breakfast, she said she couldn’t taste her blueberries.

We went to the pediatrician, where a rapid test confirmed she had COVID. Nearly two years into a pandemic that has infected hundreds of millions of people, it’s still scary and shocking to hear your 6-year-old has the virus.

I called her school. The nurse said she could return in five days — as long as she was fever-free for 24 hours and no longer had symptoms — and that my older daughter, 8, could remain in school as long as she didn’t stay in the home with her sister.

But a nurse called back later that day to tell me that, after consulting “experts,” I’d need to pick up my older daughter. She’d have to do remote learning for five days if she stayed apart from my younger daughter, and 10 days if she didn’t.

The nurse said she could give my 8-year-old a PCR test but, because of delays with the lab, we likely wouldn’t get the results back for several days. In the meantime, I found a rapid-test appointment at a CVS about 20 miles from my home. If she tested negative, I planned to have her stay with my mother, who lives nearby with my sister.

It was a risk my elderly and vaccinated mom was willing to take, as we hoped to prevent my daughter from getting COVID if she didn’t already have it. My partner and I weren’t worried about catching the virus, as she and I had gotten it a couple weeks prior, possibly from a holiday gathering at which some other people later tested positive. We had to isolate from the kids and avoided passing it on to them.

As we awaited the rapid results, my daughter and I went to Wendy’s for Frosties, which has become a tradition of ours whenever we go for COVID testing. CVS texted not long after. She was negative. I dropped her off at my mom’s, relieved for the time being.

My younger daughter lay on the couch most of the day, her fever topping out at 104 degrees. She slept in late the following morning. I got mixed messages from people at the school about whether she could return in five days, or six. With the ever-changing nature of COVID guidelines amid new variants, such confusion at schools is not unique.

For me, it felt like I was reliving early 2021 all over again, with my kids home attending class on a computer screen and me having to track down elusive COVID tests seemingly anytime they coughed. Somehow, a year later, the pandemic had gotten worse.

A couple days later, our story took another downward turn. My mom told me she wasn’t feeling well; my sister and eldest daughter had fevers.

The next day, inevitably it now seems, my 8-year-old tested positive. My mom and sister later did, as well. My isolation plan had backfired. (Out of curiosity, I contacted a school nurse the following week to ask the results of my older daughter’s PCR test; she said it was negative so my daughter could come back in person, not realizing I’d notified the school that she had since tested positive for COVID-19. I could tell the school, like many last month, was overwhelmed.)

My younger daughter lay on the couch most of the day, her fever topping out at 104 degrees. I got mixed messages from people at the school about whether she could return in five days, or six. 

But life, especially in the era of COVID-19, moves pretty fast. Less than a month after omicron tore through my household and the country as a whole, my kids’ school emailed us a survey, asking if it should continue requiring masks. This was in response to a court decision in Illinois that nullified the governor’s statewide school mask mandate, leaving it up to local school districts.

The pandemic has been a balancing act, on both a political and personal level, between protecting people from a deadly virus and the unintended consequences of curtailing our normal freedoms.

Had my kids’ school gone back to remote learning after winter break this year, amid the omicron wave surge, would my daughters have avoided getting sick? On the other hand, would that have contributed to more learning loss and behavioral problems among students?

There’s no telling where they contracted the virus, despite the best efforts of contact tracers. I talked to one after my younger daughter tested positive; while the woman provided some helpful info, like how COVID patients are most contagious two days before to three days after the onset of symptoms, I quickly realized her job, in the face of a rapidly spreading variant, was largely futile.

Around the country, people are increasingly pushing for schools to get rid of face coverings, doctors among them. They note that we now have vaccines for kids (at least for those 5 and older), and know that masks like N95s and KN95s offer significant protection for those who choose to wear them.

Big questions linger. How is kids’ social growth being affected by face coverings? What developmental cues are educators missing? One of my daughters’ teachers told me she’s had trouble assessing her students’ speech because it’s already so hard to understand them with masks on.

In the school survey, I voted to make them optional, as did 52% of the roughly 1,200 parents and staff who responded. On Friday, the district emailed to say face coverings would be “recommended but not required” going forward, given the COVID positivity rate stayed below 3%.

In addition, some states and districts have adopted COVID vaccine mandates for students. Will officials keep calling for those or back away, especially as only about a quarter of elementary-age children have received a shot?

Thankfully, like with most kids, my daughters’ flu-like COVID symptoms didn’t last long. My 8-year-old bounced back in about 24 hours; my 6-year-old was sick for a few days, though we later found out she had strep at the same time. We’re all back to normal, save for some fatigue my younger daughter and I have been dealing with. Is it from the virus? Its disruption to our routine? Something else? It’s hard to tell. As with adults, long COVID is a concern for children.

For better or worse, there will be no shortage of COVID stories for journalists to tell in the months to come, even as the pandemic recedes. Just ask the parents.

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