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We Didn't Want To Make This Choice Yet

(Originally posted on The $76K Project on 8/29/2020)

Welp. It's the weekend, which is typically when my partner's school prefers to send out long, nail-bitey emails to employees. And sure enough, one showed up in the inbox today.

The gist of it is that they're planning to re-open school by the end of September, calling teachers back to the classroom much sooner than we were predicting. I'm disappointed. Secretly, I was holding out hope that the school and district would decide to limit in-person learning until January 2021. 

Although we'll technically meet Arizona's stated reopening metrics (~5% or less positivity rate, <100/100,000 cases for at least two weeks, COVID test turnaround time of three days or less), Fortysomething and I don't feel ready. From a science-based, data-driven perspective, we just don't think it's a good idea:

1. All of the health professionals I've been listening to, including virologists and epidemiologists, seem to agree that a combination of testing and contact tracing should serve as the foundation of a strong return-to-school plan. Testing and contact tracing are particularly important given the prevalence of asymptomatic COVID transmission. But that's simply not going to happen. Although everyone is expected to wear masks and conduct daily self-administered health checks, nobody - not kids, not teachers, not staff - is required to get tested prior to returning to the building. 

Moreover, there's no plan to test anyone throughout the year or notify potential contacts of those who are diagnosed with COVID. Every time someone asks admin what will happen if a kid or teacher tests positive (will whole classrooms quarantine? For how long?), they deflect or ignore the question.

2. Social distancing will be impossible in many classes. Some kids will continue with online learning (including my kid), but a recent school survey indicates that the majority of students plan to return to the classroom. The fact that the school relaxed enrollment limits this year and ended up with more students than ever makes social distancing all the more challenging.

3. Flu and cold season will ramp up soon. Ah, a potpourri of viruses! To school administrators, this is apparently the perfect time to bring large groups of people together in enclosed, poorly-ventilated, windowless spaces, despite the fact that enclosed, poorly-ventilated, windowless spaces represent the ideal environment for COVID transmission. 

4. It's unnecessary. Our school has already opened its doors to students who need supervision during the day. Everyone else is learning at home. It's a good compromise in that it meets everyone's needs while maintaining social distancing as much as possible. Online learning hasn't been perfect, but overall, it's been going pretty well. Why does everyone need to come back to the classroom?

5. I'm not convinced the school is considering vulnerable populations at all. Racial and ethnic minority groups appear to be at increased risk in this pandemic, for various reasons. We have kids who come into school from the nearby reservation... the same reservation that's lost hundreds of people to COVID since the spring. We have kids who live in multigenerational households. We have kids who live with their grandparents.

Who's making the decision to reopen? Rich white people, mostly. (Oop, I just checked. Everyone in our charter's leadership is white. Wow! Yay diversity! Hurrah representation!) 

6. Also, some teachers and staff have pre-existing conditions that put them at greater risk. No worries. Admin doesn't care, so it isn't an issue!

7. My partner and I are in our 40s. Yes, we're both healthy (knock on wood), but COVID seems to have a greater impact on people the older they are. There are plenty of examples of people in their 30s, 40s, and beyond who've had bad reactions to the virus (hospitalization, debilitation, death) even if they had no prior medical conditions. And even relatively minor bouts of COVID seem to leave a lasting physiological mark on most people who catch the virus. We certainly can't eliminate our risk, but we'd like to minimize it.

8. If he goes back, we won't see anyone else the entire year. I already don't know when I'll feel comfortable seeing my family or my partner's family again, but I certainly won't feel comfortable with it if we're at greater risk of exposing them to the virus.

Back in early July, I wrote a post about how we're not into playing Russian roulette with our lives. 

That hasn't changed. The plan remains the same: walk away when teachers are required to return to the classroom. It still seems like the most logical choice for us given the situation. 

I was just hoping we'd have a few more months to prepare.

I've spent the better part of today fighting off a panic attack. I'm trying to keep my cool by reminding myself that we will (probably) be okay if and when he quits:

-We have about six months of expenses in savings.

-He's got several contract jobs in the works for this fall.

-I still have my part-time job.

-I'm searching for additional job opportunities and have made at least a little headway on that (still waiting to hear back about the results of my recent interview).

-He's going to see if a leave of absence is an option.

-He'll be less stressed out and probably sleep better. 

But nevertheless, being in this position is anxiety-provoking.

This isn't where we'd be if it weren't for this damn pandemic. This isn't a choice we wanted to make. And financially, it sucks: we'll be losing employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement.

Sometimes I sit back and think about the frontier of this current moment. All of it is new. All of it feels uncertain and dangerous. The right choices are often not apparent. We weren't ready for this; we didn't know we'd have to make these decisions. And we have no real leadership to guide us. 

It didn't have to be this way, but here we all are, muddling through, doing our best, and crossing our fingers and toes that our tough choices in this moment will work out for us in the long run.

I hope we're making the right choice. I hope we feel confident in that choice. And if you're in a similar boat, I'm hoping you'll feel peace with your decisions, too.

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