Fatherhood in the Time of Coronavirus: Part 2

Every weekday morning I pick up my phone and fill out the form that determines if our older daughter is suitable for school.

The form consists of 6 yes/no questions, each designed to determine our potential exposure to COVID-19. If you’ve been to a doctor’s office anytime in the past 6 months, or if you need to fill out a COVID screener to enter work, you may be familiar with these questions.

If we answer “no” to all of the questions, nothing happens. Helena goes to school.

If we answer “yes” to any question, I get a screen with red lettering instead of black, informing me that she can’t go to school. Then, typically within minutes, I get a phone call from a nurse with the school district, asking about our daughter’s symptoms and providing the guidance necessary to move forward.

The other day, I answered “yes”, because Helena had a stuffy nose.

Yes.

If a child has a stuffy nose the parent has two options.

The first option is to keep the child home for 10 school days, after which the kiddo can return to school if they are symptom-free for the entirety of their time home.

The second option is to go and get your kid tested for COVID.

After that, stay in regular communication with the school while you wait for the result. You may want to notify anyone you’ve been in close contact with over the preceding days. It’s not stressful at all.

The COVID test for kids is the same as the one for adults. They stick a Q-Tip looking thing up their nostril and spin it around for a while. It feels like someone is trying, and succeeding, to tickle your brain.

In my experience, it doesn’t hurt, but why would you want someone to tickle your brain?

Do you think your kid wants their brain tickled?

They do not.

I had heard that there is another type of test for kiddos, either currently existing or in production, which does not require brain tickling and instead tests saliva. This option was not readily available in our area, per our pediatrician. I’ll have to look deeper into that, because there are going to be additional stuffy noses in the future.

There are always additional stuffy noses.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that young children have around 8 respiratory illnesses (or “colds”) every year, on average. Most of these will occur during the school year, particularly in the late autumn and throughout the winter. The reasons for this are obvious; kids are little germ magnets, and when you put a bunch of germ magnets together, they all get stuffy noses.

And every time there’s a stuffy nose, we have to report it to the school.

Our older daughter is 4. She woke up in the middle of the night, crying because she couldn’t breath properly from congestion. We knew we had to keep her home from school. Getting the COVID test was an easy decision; we had recently seen family members and felt an obligation to keep them informed. Also, the school required one if she was going to go back.

I call the pediatrician’s office and they provide us with the number to schedule the test. I call the testing center and explain that I have two kiddos with me, one who needs a test, and ask how the visit works. I’m not sure if I’ll need to bring the whole family into the COVID testing center. The center staff is very understanding, and they offer to do the test in the parking lot; they’ll come to the car. It’s a small courtesy, but also a major relief – I have no interest in bringing two kiddos, one who needs her brain tickled, and the other a walking embodiment of curiosity and destruction, into a COVID testing center. Certainly not by myself; I’m outnumbered.

I get off of the phone and Helena is sitting on the couch, looking serene but sniffly. She overheard part of the phone call and asks if we’re going to the doctor today.

This’ll be good.

For you people out there in the world: I’m sure you’ve wondered how and when to give news that may not be received well. You know, some instance in which you had to tell somebody an important thing for them to know, but you also had enough time to consider how you wanted to deliver the news. Depending on the person receiving the news, maybe you changed your tone of voice; made it sound very kind, or very excited, or maybe downplayed what happened/is about to happen to make it sound like no big deal. Minute calculations which maybe spared both of you some of the pain/discomfort/annoyance of the information being given and received.

With those calculations completed in my brain, I tell Helena that we are going to the doctor today. She’s fine with it. That was easy! Good job, Dad!

I decide to wait until we’re en route to the appointment to tell her that the doctor is going to put something up her nose and that it’s going to tickle a little. I tell her that I’ll be with her the whole time and that it’s no big deal. I use “matter of fact” voice; I’m downplaying like a champion, because I’m a smart guy.

Certainly smarter than a toddler, right?

The answer is closest to option 2.

You know, I tried. Parents; we try all the time. We set out to paint a picture of the world that is simultaneously based in reality and also some idealized version of events; even if this uncomfortable/bad thing happens, it’s temporary. We try to prepare our kids for what may happen, but also let them know that it’s going to be OK. Short of achieving those goals, we try to coach them to get through it. And in doing this for our kids, we do it for ourselves, too.

We get to the parking lot, and the scary nurse comes out in his scary mask, holding his scary tube and offering reassurances that, yes, this is going to go up your nose, but it will only tickle for a little while. She lets him get one nostril before she’s savvy to the game, then she starts jerking around for each subsequent attempt. The nurse makes a few valiant advances, looking at me helplessly. I look at him, equally helplessly. I’m not sure if there’s a way to get into the back of the car and soothe her at this point. There are two car seats back there; I have no entry point. Also, I know my kid, and she is not exactly open to soothing if she doesn’t want to do something. I settle on holding her hand, which she jerks away the next time the nurse makes a move. He looks at me like “hey Dad, I’m trying”, but I’m not really the one who needs consoling at this point.

Or wait, am I?

Short of climbing into the backseat and holding her down for the test, which I’m not going to do, whatever he was able to get is going to have to be good enough.

The nurse and I convey all of the above to each other with our eyes only, above our respective masks. I’ve gotten pretty good at looking at people. He says “that’s good enough”. I say “Are you sure you have what you need?” He says “yup, that’ll be good”.

And then it’s over. Now we wait the 1-2 business days to get our results which, in this case, is over the weekend.

She tests negative.

This is the first stuffy nose of the season.

The CDC also states that COVID-19 has no symptoms which can be used to differentiate it from several other conditions, including the common cold, the “regular” flu, or any number of chronic conditions such as asthma or allergies. For chronic conditions, the advice is to monitor your child’s symptoms for any signs of exacerbation; “my kid has asthma but now it’s worse”.

Per the CDC’s updated guidance on school reopenings (effective 10/21/20):

“Because symptom screenings will likely identify individuals who have symptoms that are unrelated to COVID-19 and, at times, unrelated to any infectious illness, students may be inappropriately excluded from school, which may cause unintended harm. It is because of these limitations that CDC does not currently recommend that universal symptom screenings be conducted at schools.”

Instead, the CDC recommends that “Parents or caregivers should be strongly encouraged to monitor their children for signs of infectious illness every day. Students who are sick should not attend school in-person.”

Because ultimately, you know your kid, and now you’re also responsible for saving the world.

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me here and start thinking that I don’t agree with all of the protocol and recommendations. Of course our kids should be safe. Of course we have a social commitment to keep each other as safe as we can. If you’re reading this and you know me, you know that I hold these values. If you don’t know me, I’m telling you this now. The policies are in place to keep us safe, and they are totally reasonable, given the threat we continue to face.

At the same time, a disproportionate amount of the responsibility for keeping our communities safe has been saddled on parents of school-age children and/or adult caregivers. Many parents have been faced with choosing whether they can have a job or send their kids to school. Emma and I have friends who are working full time, either in the field or at home, while also parenting full time, and making sure their kids attend virtual school. We have other friends who have chosen to send their kids to school in-person and are just waiting for the first stuffy nose to send their household into anarchy. For members of the sandwich generation, “the pandemic has forced [them] to make near-constant, stressful decisions about how to safely care for their own young children with schools and day care facilities closed, while also trying to reduce health risks for elderly parents and grandparents”. What was once called work/life balance is now just called “balance.” Or “stumbling.”

With no federal COVID relief forthcoming, and limited state-driven policies offering guidance for employers, and protection for employees, as they navigate COVID-infested waters, employers have enacted family leave polices on their own. However, thorny questions arise about whether parents are entitled to additional time off, or special accommodation, based solely on their status as parents. Without significant legislation to back up working families for COVID-specific issues, companies risk sacrificing employee good will and are likely leaving themselves open to lawsuits if they do not establish clear policies and procedures regarding COVID family leave, and enforce them fairly.

If we can even gauge what is “fair” in this environment.

Women have been particularly impacted in the post-COVID economy; in September of 2020, 865,000 women left the workforce in America – 4 times more than men. Some are forced out through layoffs; others are succumbing to the stress of working while also taking on the brunt of caregiver work.

Emma and I have been very lucky/privileged in a lot of ways. Once it was determined that Emma was an “essential worker”, I left my job to watch the girls. This has helped us avoid the stress of navigating daycare for Ori, who has a permanently stuffy nose during the winter. We also don’t have to worry about care for Helena after she gets out of school, which is only a half-day. Our parents are also healthy and able to take care of themselves, and so we have avoided the plight of the sandwich generation. Even when stuffy noses happen, we are lucky that Dad can be home and take care of the COVID test, communicate with the teachers and nurses, and make sure nap time happens.

But if it were all the same, wouldn’t we rather not have to do that?

Not long ago, we were thinking that we’d look back on this time as a blip; something we remember but our kids won’t have to be burdened with. There is new evidence that antibodies fall rapidly after a COVID infection, potentially leaving people at risk of catching the virus multiple times. We have a government who keeps saying we’re “turning the corner” on coronavirus, yet their policy seems to hinge on developing a herd immunity which may never come. In the meantime, we’ve developed systems for kids to go back to school, or for adults to go back to work, that have been developed as stop-gap measures. They rely on the assumption that COVID will go away, some day. But what will it take to make that happen?

All to ask, if this thing is going to go on for the foreseeable future, at what point do we demand either a more aggressive response to the virus, or a complete overhaul of our existing institutions; one that takes into account the lived realities of people who have been limping by, hoping there is an end in sight? Or are we all just waiting for “the vaccine”?

I ask because getting a COVID test for a stuffy nose isn’t “normal.” It just isn’t, and parents know that. Kids know that. And people are going to start keeping their kids out of school rather than going to get a COVID test every time a cold happens. Unless, of course, we’ve all become OK with the “new normal” and I’m just lagging behind. I’ve been guilty of lagging behind before. I think I’m justified, however, in wanting to live in a world where my kid can go to school and be spared the physical discomfort. And I can be spared the fear.

M

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