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Life with Liz: Back to school

Is this déjà vu ever going to stop? I truly can’t believe I’m sitting here on the cusp of another school year beating myself up over whether to allow my kids to go back to school in person. The day that both boys, particularly A, were able to get their vaccinations was a monumental step forward for us, and the point where we finally felt like we were coming out of this mess.

Our summer was mostly normal. We still took precautions, especially for E, since she’s too young to be vaccinated, and we still didn’t do many extra social or indoor activities when we could help it. We took care that the groups we did hang out with were mostly vaccinated where possible. We still washed our hands and sanitized like crazy. But all in all, it felt like a pretty normal summer.

We managed to take a vacation with friends. A was finally able to get a summer job. Summer swim team was back, albeit in a slightly unusual format. I stopped finding surgical masks in the washing machine filter. Things were looking up.

I ordered school uniforms and new backpacks, started stalking the school’s website for updates to athletic schedules. I blocked out my vacation days to coincide with the kids’ days home from school and promised them we’d “do something fun.” I allowed myself to get excited for Friday night football games and the band’s halftime show.

Now, that all feels like it might be in jeopardy. I know some people are determined that “the show will go on,” but it’s going to be pretty hard to do that as COVID-19 cases in the area start to rise again, especially if they start to affect our kids. I don’t get it. Why is it so hard to wear a mask? Why is it so hard to get a vaccination? Why is it so hard to do the things that will make our communities healthier in the long run?

I can’t understand why I am still seeing people arguing about the effectiveness of masks. For decades, doctors, nurses and other operating room personnel have worn masks for hours during surgeries, to prevent the spread of germs. Is a mask a perfect solution? Absolutely not, but is it a reasonably effective barrier between you and an airborne germ? Yes.

Most people I know, even the people who claim to be anti-masking, will cover their mouth when they cough, sneeze, or yawn. Why do we follow this practice, if not to prevent the spread of germs? Are there still germs sneezed into your hands, or your elbow or your shoulder? Sure, but you just slowed down their progress a lot by preventing them from shooting out of your mouth and nose at full blast.

My doctor’s office, as well as my kids’ pediatrician’s, as well as the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where I’ve spent a lot of time, have, for years, requested that anyone showing active symptoms of a cold or flu-type disease put a mask on upon entering the office. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone throw a tantrum over that request. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

I’ve seen a lot of people talk about how damaging it is for kids to have to wear masks all day. This expectation can most easily be managed by an adult example. When my kids started to venture out into the world again, the expectation was set, and it was clear: If you want to go out into public places, you will wear a mask.

There have been times that the kids were so anxious to go somewhere, they would have worn 10 masks. And, there were times when someone sat in the car because they didn’t feel like wearing a mask. I know if I give the kids the option of staying home for virtual schooling for another year or going back to school in person but having to wear a mask, they will absolutely choose going to school while wearing a mask. Well, G might not choose that, he genuinely enjoyed rolling out of bed 30 seconds before class started and coming down for some juice and toast between classes, but I have a feeling that a week of being back with his friends will remind him about all the fun to be had at school.

I’m a lot calmer about the boys’ return to in-person schooling, thanks to their vaccinations. I have a degree in biology, which not only helps me to understand the science behind vaccinations, but a lot of my fellow bio majors went on to work for pharmaceutical labs, or became physicians, and a few even have worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other government labs. They’ve all shared a lot of great information on their social media about the vaccines and their effectiveness. Of course, we all hear about the breakthrough cases, and again, is a vaccine a 100% guarantee? No, of course it isn’t, but it’s another tool in the arsenal.

Between basic precautions like rigorous hand washing and social distancing, mask wearing and vaccinations, I should feel a lot better about sending my kids back to school. But I don’t. Why? Because so many local school districts are deciding that they’re not going to follow even the most basic fundamentals of science, most of which are taught in their very classrooms.

Because people who may well have flunked those classes in high school share memes and websites that have been shown repeatedly to be propaganda or flagged as disinformation. Because somehow, a simple piece of cloth or paper designed to protect those around you from germs is a symbol of tyranny.

I’ve sat by my kid’s bedside while he was on a ventilator. Not once, but three times. Let me say this plainly: It sucks. I can’t understand why anyone would take a chance of having to sit through that if it could be avoided.

Having my child grumpy with me because he has to wear a mask is a battle I’ll happily fight 100 times a day, rather than go through that again. Watching my child be glassy-eyed and exhausted for 12 hours after his shot was not a good time either, but it was still better than wondering if he was ever going to breathe again on his own.

Our kids have sacrificed enough. We owe it to them to get them back in the schools, and doing the things they love, but we also owe it to them to keep them as healthy as possible. We can do both.

Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.