By Jen Jackson Quintano
It finally happened — the thing I’ve been dreading for the two years since the last time it happened: classroom closure due to COVID.
Two years later, and we’re still shutting down classrooms. Sigh. Haven’t we learned that letting mom and dad go to the bar but keeping kids home from school — for safety, of course — is a strange ranking of priorities? Haven’t we learned over the course of two years how to safeguard the bodies, minds and psyches of our little ones, of our very future? Maybe we adults missed a couple crucial years of education somewhere along the line, too, and I forgot about it. We’re certainly not acting the part of brilliance and resilience right now. But bless us for trying in the midst of bewildering times.
I received an email last week from my daughter’s school informing me that her class was exposed to COVID and that she should not return to the classroom for five days. She is now back at school, but tentatively. The next quarantine feels imminent. Omicron is on a warpath through the school.
Yet, we are the lucky ones here in North Idaho. We haven’t seen nearly the amount of school disruption as other parts of the country. Sylvie’s kindergarten year went off without a hitch (a shout-out to the Selkirk School for being amazing in the face of adversity). I shouldn’t be surprised about this class quarantine (and I’m not), nor should I be upset. We’ve had a good run. But just because other people have had it harder than us, doesn’t mean we’re doing anything right. Just because we’re lucky, it doesn’t mean that we’re good.
I don’t understand the piecemeal approach to the COVID threat in our schools. Why do we not adhere to recommendations to social distance, to mask, to get our vaccinations, yet we do adhere to the advice to quarantine entire classes? I wish we could either agree that this is a pandemic worth taking seriously — masking, quarantines and all — or agree to not take it seriously in totality. As in, I’m not going to mask, but I’m also not going to worry or be surprised when a kid gets COVID at school. He or she can stay home, and my kid can still receive an education.
If we truly want our children in school, we need to choose one path or another, but this strange reactive middle ground is not serving students or teachers.
I am fortunate in that this is our quieter season with work. I can roll with the punches of school cancellations more easily (if not gracefully). This would be a whole different ball game if my husband and I were rushing off to job sites each day. I would not be able to easily facilitate Sylvie’s remote learning (such as it is), and her schooling would happen from the cab of the truck to the tune of whining chainsaws. This would leave her destined for a future of… well, manual labor, like her parents. Might as well get her on payroll now, seeing as she’s not going to school.
In reality, we would/will likely take turns going to work, leaving the crew short staffed but attending to our daughter’s needs. We are also fortunate that, in owning our own business, we have the flexibility to step away at times. Many are not so lucky, forced to forgo income and ambition to instead nurture the next generation. It shouldn’t have to be a choice, but at this moment in our nation, it is.
There is so much internal decay in our society now laid bare by this pandemic. Our health care system is on the brink of collapse. Domestic violence, suicide and overdoses have spiked. The supply chain is about as stable as a late-stage game of Jenga played with shipping containers. And educators are hanging on by a thread… if they’re still hanging on at all. Many aren’t, and I don’t blame them.
Sylvie’s small school alone has a nearly insurmountable staffing shortage to contend with. Forget COVID — if two teachers come down with the common cold simultaneously, we’ll likely see more education days canceled. There’s no one jumping in to fill the gaps. And why would anyone want to? As a teacher in the age of COVID, you’re not just covering the “three Rs,” you’re also fielding angry emails from parents like me, on both sides of the issue. You’re having to assess the seriousness of every cough and tummy ache in your classroom. You’re having to plan for distance learning, just in case. You’re having to consider your own safety in a room full of snot-nosed mouth-breathers. And you’re not getting paid a dime more for your added anxieties.
Of course there are teacher shortages. Just like there are gaps in health care staffing and restaurant work. The pandemic has colored us all varying shades of anxious and umbrageous. Verbal semi-automatic fire meets all messengers of bad news, whether that news is that your kid’s class is canceled, you’ve just tested COVID-positive or the steak you ordered is not available. There is so little we have control over right now, we are apt to rail at the nearest target. So, yeah, of course all the messengers have now left the building. God bless our COVID-weary souls.
Just as I will figure it out for the foreseeable future (e.g., sending invoices while grilling cheeses), we as a nation will figure it out someday, too. Or, that’s the hope. Remember the quote, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”? If we want school to return to normal, we might have to alter our COVID approach. Reactive quarantines and distance learning aren’t cutting it. For anyone. As hard as this is for us as parents, it’s even harder for our children.
Thirty percent of my daughter’s lived experience is with this pandemic. Thirty percent of her time on this planet has been spent assessing the risks of birthday parties and playdates, the pros and cons of masking, the chances of school continuing. She wants to know if COVID will still be here when she goes to college. Sadly, I don’t have the answer.
In fact, I don’t have any of the answers. Instead, I have hopes, fears and frustrations. I have rants like this one. We all do. Maybe the solution is to stop conflating our feelings with facts (this article, for instance, is just one Big Feeling), and come together for the shared goal of returning our kids to educational normalcy. Even if normal is a whole new entity in this COVID-colored world.
Jen Jackson Quintano writes and runs an arborist business with her husband in Sandpoint. Find their website at sandcreektreeservice.com. See more of Quintano’s writing at jenjacksonquintano.com
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