By Eric Levenson and Christina Zdanowicz, CNN
One mom said she feels like she’s endangering her kids’ health. Another said she feels lonely and exhausted by the pressure of what to do. And a father said he and his wife live in fear that their daughter’s school will close.
These were among just 10 of the responses from parents of school-age children who spoke to CNN about how the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has added renewed stress and fear to their lives. The issue is particularly difficult for parents of children under 5 years old, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
“The world at large is forgetting about anyone with kids under 5,” one mother, Rachel Lekherzak, said.
Their experiences represent a snapshot of the broader chaos facing the country as Omicron infects hundreds of thousands of people daily, creating major staffing shortages for schools, hospitals, airlines and emergency services.
Their perspectives help illustrate the tricky position that millions of parents are in. All acknowledged the value of in-person education; all also knew the risks that in-person class could present with this wave of cases.
Here is a sample of their stories.
‘Mommy, I’m sorry I failed you’
When Jane Peng’s 13-year-old daughter spiked a fever and started vomiting Monday, Peng quickly used a home test kit. The result was negative, but there appeared to be a shadow where the line should be, she said.
The eighth grader at Eisenhower Middle/High School in New Berlin, Wisconsin, has been isolating and wearing a KN95 mask at home since then, the same day that class reopened. On Tuesday and Saturday, home tests came back positive, her mother said. Peng asked that her daughter not be named in this story.
Peng scrambled to find her daughter a PCR test Monday, but all the local pharmacies and testing centers she tried didn’t have availability until Friday. “I’m angry and frustrated,” she said. “I’m almost unable to get my daughter a test at any official sites … at the time when she got sick.”
The family’s doctor couldn’t see her daughter until Thursday. On Saturday afternoon, her daughter’s PCR test results came back positive. Her husband, a healthcare worker, has tested negative with tests at work.
“Mommy, I’m sorry I failed you, that I didn’t protect myself, that I got this Covid and I put you and daddy into danger,” Peng said her daughter told her, crying.
Peng told her daughter, who has been wearing a KN95 mask to school, it wasn’t her fault. “It’s our adults’ fault. It’s the CDC and school district and me, the mother, that we failed you,” Peng said.
The timing of her daughter’s illness stung. She tested positive one day before the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its recommendations for the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine booster to include children as young as 12.
Her daughter’s school did a good job with Covid-19 safety measures last year with mask mandates, social distancing and glass dividers set up for lunch, she said. Her daughter was struggling with virtual learning, so Peng let her go back to in-person classes in March 2021.
But for this school year, the School District of New Berlin is recommending masks for students and teachers, as opposed to requiring them, according to a May letter from the superintendent.
CDC guidelines for isolation changed from 10 days to five days if you do not have symptoms, plus five days of wearing a mask around others. It makes Peng angry, she said. The school district sent an email to parents on December 30 saying it would adopt the same reduced isolation period, though not the mask requirement.
“This is like drinking the sea water when you are really thirsty, and your children got sick because of this policy change. I blame the CDC and I blame our school district,” Peng said. “I want to send this message to a school district — open your eyes, look at the data, protect our children.”
‘I feel like I’m endangering them’
Rachel Lekherzak, 40, and her husband decided to hold their 4- and 6-year-old kids back a grade last year, hoping the pandemic would be over by now. The rise of Omicron and decisions made by the Cobb County School District in Georgia have foiled that hope, she said.
“It just feels like a trap,” she said. “I feel trapped by it. On one hand, I want my children to have an education. On the other hand, I feel like I’m endangering them by sending them there.”
Lekherzak’s 6-year-old is in kindergarten and fully vaccinated, but her 4-year-old is in pre-K and is not yet eligible for the shot. School reopened in person on Wednesday. Remote learning is an option in Cobb County, but they would have had to sign up months ago, she said.
“It really is just a series of bad options right now. (People say,) ‘You’re in a pandemic, what do you expect?’ But at some degree it’s infuriating,” she said.
Lekherzak suspects that the school will be closed by next week due to staff shortages, so she planned to keep her kids home for now to at least keep them from getting sick. Her husband disagrees and wants to send them to class. The situation has caused constant stress, and she was hardly comforted by the knowledge that Covid-19 is generally milder for children.
“There are so many decisions that have been from this pandemic that just puts kids at the short end of the stick. It’s like, ‘oh they won’t get it that bad.’ For people who are parents, it doesn’t matter how you minimize it, if your child is sick and gasping for air, I’m sorry it’s scary,” she said. “That’s what happens with this virus. That’s a normal symptom of a coughing fit.”
In a statement Monday, Cobb County School District said schools would reopen after the holiday break on Wednesday and advised parents to “not send a sick child to school.” The district strongly encourages students and staff to wear face masks but does not require them, and there are no vaccine or testing requirements, according to its policies.
The district on Thursday also said that they would not continue contact tracing and loosened its quarantine rules, citing new state guidance. “Cobb’s Public Health Protocols are intended to balance the importance of in-person learning and the frequent changes associated with Covid-19,” a district spokesperson said in a statement.
‘Are you gonna wrap yourself in bubble wrap?’
Brian Nagele, of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, said he lives under the constant fear that his 6-year-old daughter’s school will close due to Covid.
He and his wife aren’t able to work from home, so closing in-person class means they have to scramble for day care or take the day off work. Sometimes his daughter’s grandparents are able to babysit for the day, but not always.
“It’s tough. There’s nobody else that can help us out. If they can’t do it, one of us has to take off work. Then we run the risk of losing our jobs or bringing less money in,” he said. “We have options, but none of them are good.”
Remote learning also has not worked for his daughter, he said.
“It’s a constant (stress),” he added. “My wife is constantly worried about whether they’re going to shut down. If they do, what do we do?”
Nagele and his wife are vaccinated, and their 6-year-old has gotten her first shot. He said safety has never been a concern and he trusted that his daughter’s immune system was strong enough to keep her healthy.
He understands the idea of erring on the side of caution, but the district was being overbearingly cautious, he argued. People in a car should wear a seat belt, he said — “but are you gonna wrap yourself in bubble wrap in the off chance you get in a crash? No.”
‘It wasn’t a tough decision to send them back’
Timothy Lin lives in Cobb County, Georgia, and works as a pulmonologist in nearby Cartersville, so he treats patients sick and dying of Covid during his working hours. Talking to his kids after work about their time at school doesn’t give him much of a reprieve from Covid issues.
“It’s just hard. It’s just in my face 24/7,” he said.
Even so, he said it was not a hard choice to send his two vaccinated children, ages 8 and 10, back to Mountain View Elementary School on Wednesday with masks in hand.
“At the end of the day, with Covid here to stay for the foreseeable future, we really do need to do in-person learning,” he said. “When they’re just watching a video screen, I think there’s a lot lost in that. It’s valuable having peers who are with you, around you, (and) a teacher talking in front of you.”
He expressed his ongoing frustration, though, that the school was not requiring students to wear masks.
“I think it’s just a matter of heightened awareness and nervousness of them being at school. For us, it wasn’t a tough decision to send them back in person because we felt the risks are outweighed by the benefits,” he said. “That being said, you’re just waiting to get the email saying, ‘Hey, your kid needs to isolate for five days’ or whatever.”
‘I’m not … cool with getting Covid’
For single mom Anmari Linardi, it’s all about her and her 14-year-old daughter, Diana Lesny, who has autism. She can’t afford to get sick, and neither can her daughter, she said.
“I’m not one of these people that are cool with getting Covid, even though it’s not going to kill us. I don’t want it at all,” the 51-year-old said. “I’m triple vaccinated, my daughter’s double vaccinated. She’s going to be getting her booster when it’s available.”
With the surge in Covid-19 cases, Linardi decided to pull Diana out of school just a couple days after she returned from the holiday.
Diana attends Springbrook, a private school for children with developmental disabilities. The mother and daughter live in Oneonta, New York, which is at the foothills of the Catskill Mountains.
“I have 100 percent confidence in the staff that they’re doing everything they’re supposed to be doing, but I know that kids who are autistic are not necessarily going to want to wear a mask,” Linardi said. “I don’t know if those kids’ parents are vaccinated or are they as diligent about following the CDC guidelines as we are.”
Diana has only five classmates, but Linardi also worries about what her daughter can’t tell her. “My daughter is non-verbal, so it’s not like she can tell me if her classmates are wearing masks or not, or if anyone’s getting close to her face,” she said.
Linardi said her daughter is at a kindergarten level of education, so she can supplement her education at home. She subscribes to an online learning tool called IXL for her daughter. Linardi has a flexible work from home situation, so she can spend time teaching her daughter, as well as doing yoga and other physical activities together.
She isn’t sure when she will send Diana back to school, which has a year-long program. Linardi thinks it will be safer after the flu season, she said. “It’s the outside world that determines how much we will experience.”
‘Trying to find that balance’
Micheal Garza, 46, said he and his wife are nervous about Omicron, but they decided they were comfortable sending their daughter Emma to her private preschool in Marietta, Georgia, on Wednesday.
Emma turned 5 last month and has received her first vaccine dose, so she has some protection. Still, Garza’s elderly mother-in-law lives with them, so they plan to send Emma to school with an upgraded mask such as an KN95 or KF94.
“We’re trying to keep her from getting this and also making sure she’s in a good learning environment socially with other children, and trying to find that balance,” he said. “We’re making sure she’s safe enough and making sure she gets educated. She loves pre-K, she loves her friends, and the idea that she wouldn’t get to go back and see them is really too much for us to even consider pulling her out.”
He praised her school, Holy Family Catholic Preschool, for hearing their concerns and making them comfortable with the decision.
“They may not put every measure we prefer in there, but we know they respect our wishes, and for us that means everything,” Garza said.
‘They missed their friends’
Aubree Norton, 43, is both a parent of two boys and a teacher at the Mercer County School District in Aledo, Illinois, a rural enclave near the Quad Cities. Her dual perspective has given her firsthand knowledge that remote learning didn’t work for many kids last year, including her own.
“It’s a very, very uneven playing field,” she said, noting some students didn’t have parents around or proper technology. “I saw my own kids struggle with remote learning. I saw their mental health decline. They missed their friends.”
Her school is back in-person now, and while she had concerns about the spread of Omicron, she praised her district for keeping classes open and keeping people safe. Every family has different circumstances, she noted, and no one in her family is high-risk.
“I, of course, have a concern, but I don’t think I have a concern as much as some people might,” she said.
‘It feels lonely, as well as exhausting’
Megan Dominy, of Marietta, Georgia, made a pros and cons list with her husband to decide whether to send their 5-year-old daughter to kindergarten on Wednesday. On the pro side, they noted their daughter is vaccinated and enjoys school.
“Our daughter absolutely loves social interaction with her peers, she craves interaction with other kids all the time. And she needs school,” Dominy said.
The cons outweighed the pros, though. Covid cases are surging in Cobb County, and their 2-year-old daughter is too young to be vaccinated. Dominy also heard that another student’s parents had contracted Covid but still planned to send their child to school.
Adding to her concern was a brief email from the Cobb County School District saying that classes would remain open, with little in the way of explanation or attempt to assuage concerns. The lack of specific guidance or support meant she and her husband were on their own.
“It feels lonely, as well as exhausting,” she said. “Each family has to make their decision that’s best for their family.”
They ultimately decided to keep their daughter out of school on Wednesday. How long would she stay out? They weren’t yet sure.
“Everybody has pandemic fatigue, but I feel like being a parent during the pandemic is a special sort of weariness,” she said.
‘Anger, fury, rage’
Patty Murphy, 47, of East Cobb, Georgia, has rheumatoid arthritis and takes medicine that suppresses her immune system. She said she’s worried her two sons, ages 11 and 14, could catch Covid-19 at school and then infect the family, leading to a potentially serious case or even death.
“I understand it’s statistically unlikely, but it’s still a possibility,” she said.
Still, she and her husband agreed to send them back to in-person class on Wednesday so that they don’t fall behind in their studies.
“It was kind of an impossible decision. If I could have kept them home I would have,” she said.
She supports in-person school but said she’s frustrated by Cobb County’s decision not to require masks or testing. The issue has so animated her that she has become an active critic of the school district and board and has emailed them ad nauseum about her concerns, she said.
“(I feel) anger, fury, rage. I feel despondent, helpless, hopeless, frustrated,” Murphy said. “But also it motivates me. It encourages me to help be a voice for people who can’t be a voice and want to say these things, or can’t say these things, like teachers.”
‘We don’t know how’ Omicron will effect pregnancy
There’s a new part of the equation for Kumar Santosh to consider when sending his child back to preschool: He and his wife are expecting a child in May, and they worry about the effects of Omicron on her pregnancy.
Santosh decided to keep his 4-year-old daughter, Akshara, out of school for one to two weeks to see what happens with Covid-19 cases in Austin, Texas. He said his wife’s obstetrician suggested this measure as a precaution.
“That’s one major concern that we don’t know how this Omicron is having an effect on the pregnancy or the newborn,” he said.
Before the holidays, the couple had been sending their daughter to in-person preschool at Casey Elementary School.
“She had been doing fine, but all of a sudden with this Omicron spread, that’s the only thing we’re worried about because it’s something very contagious and it’s spreading fast,” Santosh said.
Santosh said he does have faith in his daughter’s school. He said the spread of the variant and his wife’s pregnancy weigh more on their decision to send their daughter back to school.
“I don’t know how much we can stop the children from getting infected,” Santosh said. “It’s like kids to roll around and touch things.”
The school has been using HEPA filters since school resumed in August, according to a district newsletter.
With the Omicron wave, the school clarified measures in place to protect the students, including extra ventilation and sanitization, as well as a mask mandate, social distancing and contact tracing, according to a January 5 school newsletter sent to parents. The principal urged students aged 5 and older to get boosted.
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