My Son Was Exposed to COVID at School. Then We Waited.

  • The first week of school in New York City, my son’s school emailed me about a possible exposure to COVID-19.
  • My entire family, including my 13-year-old son, was vaccinated.
  • But we still began a long cycle of waiting — and realizing we didn’t know much about the COVID-19 situation at school.

We are so sorry! We bumped into a system failure and couldn’t take your email this time.

It was the first week of school in New York City, and I received an email from my son’s school with the subject line: “Possible exposure to COVID-19.” My entire family, including my 13-year-old son, is fully vaccinated. Like every parent, I want to do everything possible to keep my children safe. I’m by no means a helicopter mom, but the COVID-19 pandemic really changed how I measured risk. 

This is for one simple reason: You cannot measure the unknown.

No news is supposed to be good news

I fully embraced the new school year of in-person learning. Full vaccination and the layers of protection employed by my son’s school seemed sufficient. 

Still, I worried about a breakthrough infection. My son’s school environment was a “stress test” for the COVID-19 vaccine: By the principal’s own admission, the school was at double capacity and social distancing was impossible. No vaccine mandates were in place for staff at the time. 

I tried to focus on what I could control — a fully vaccinated child, duly masked and keeping his distance when possible.

The total failure of self-reported COVID-19 screening on the first day of school didn’t faze me. After all, I don’t trust data from any system that depends solely on the honor code. I was encouraged at the prospect of the department of education’s Situation Room, an inter-agency collaboration between the education, health department, and the city’s corps of contact tracers, that kept parents updated daily from spring 2021 through summer 2021. We were aware of the number of active cases and corresponding actions in the school building.

That stopped abruptly. There was no primer, no communication. Parents were totally in the dark about current infections and subsequent closures in the building.   

The new normal

I thrive on information. No matter how scary, I need to know. It’s how I deal with my anxiety: controlling what I can, the best way I can. 

The Friday evening after receiving the email about possible exposure, I used a home kit to test my son — not so much for my sake, but for that of the kids he would spend three hours in a classroom with the next day. I would want another parent to do the same for my child. Fortunately, he was negative.

Since the daily-communication feature of the Situation Room was now defunct and there was a total blackout of information from the school, I did what every millennial parent does: I checked Twitter. There was reporting about significant cutbacks on personnel for the situation room, reduced school-based testing mainly due to low parental consent and an incoherent policy regarding response to exposure and quarantine. 

The department of education’s school-based testing policy set the bar at a minimum of 10% of the school’s population being tested weekly — a nightmare scenario with asymptomatic students in the school building. My Friday night was a mess.

The light at the end of the tunnel     

With all the problems that NYC has, I really do love the city and have faith that it will pull through. 

I embraced the vaccine mandates for all school staff and have since learned of the COVID-19 Report Card that details cases per school. I would love it if it were still sent to my inbox, but if the mountain won’t come to Muhammed, Muhammed must go to the mountain. 

In a student population of 1,505 students and 100 staff, there had only been 12 confirmed infections among students at my son’s school between opening and the start of November. There’d been none among staff.

They’re still woefully under-testing, as only 35 tests were administered during that time. The percentage of vaccinated students is unknown, and mandated COVID-19 vaccines for students are way off. However, the education department has indicated that 74% of children aged 12 to 15 years in the five boroughs have at least one dose.  

Since testing at the school is inadequate, I try not to go down the rabbit hole of obsessing over the number of asymptomatic cases that exist. I hold fast to the science regarding breakthrough infections being minimal and that preliminary data shows Long COVID not being as worrisome in these cases. 

Truth being told, the risk of COVID-19 exposure is another worry to add to a parent’s list. When we dwell, it really challenges our desire as parents to be omnipresent, to protect our children from all danger. 

As I try to settle back into my routine, I try to accept my limitations and quietly accept that I am a mere mortal mom.   

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