Hiking, accessory spleens, and COVID

When I got my job at Nebraska Wesleyan in 2015, I felt like I won the sideways lottery (a tenure track job! But in Nebraska?). My building, Old Main, looked like Hogwarts. The faculty were smart, funny, progressive. Lincoln, though impossibly far away from family and friends, was quirky. Had a speakeasy and a used bookstore and a Trader Joes and beautiful old bungalow houses. We took the leap, and moved to Lincoln.

This week should have been my seventh “opening week” at Nebraska Wesleyan. Opening week is when faculty and staff met together before students arrived back on campus, a series of meetings, and gatherings, and last-minute syllabus writings. Although faculty complain about opening week, I always secretly looked forward to it – it was the buzz of the first day of school but before students showed up. I liked the impromptu coffee dates, the conversations with faculty around the free cookie table. I liked being a faculty member.

This year, while my friends were in opening week, I spent the day hiking with the kids. Instead of getting my kids ready to go back to school shopping and taking first day pictures, I was searching for outdoor preschools for Alma and finalizing homeschooling co-ops for Cyrus. It feels so strange to be un/self-employed in August. My entire life up until this point has been dictated by the ebb and flow of the school year – and this year, it’s not. We’ve wound up on COVID’s timeline instead.

I’m excited about the year in a lot of ways – growing this editing business is a lot of fun, I love being back in Austin, I really do like homeschooling. But this week’s newsletter is about the institutions we rely on to help us parent, and what COVID has done to them.

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Before I get any further, I’ve talked to so many of my parent friends this week and all of us feel like we’re in an impossible situation right now. I have friends whose kids are back full time, friends who are virtual schooling, friends who are homeschooling, and no one feels great about their choices. So please know I’m writing this with all of the solidarity and nothing but love and respect for whatever your family is doing this year - there are no good options right now.

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We’ve been talking about the virus a lot with the kids this week. They’re frustrated. In June, life was almost normal. There were vanishingly few cases of the virus in Lincoln. They went to camp. We went to bookstores and Trader Joe’s. We started talking to them about going to school again. And then all of that got rewound as the Delta variant hit, hard.

In Texas, Governor Abbott, who has newly tested positive for COVID, inexplicably waged wars against mask mandates themselves. Teachers are being attacked by angry parents and having masks ripped off of their faces. School districts are shutting down because of COVID has overwhelmed rural hospital systems. It’s a disaster, and one we decided to opt out of.

As we did last year, we’ve decided to keep our kids home this school year, reevaluating when there’s a kid’s vaccine. It’s an exhausting choice to have to make, one with real implications for the social wellbeing of our kids, not to mention our own mental and professional health. I’m furious at Republican leadership for putting us in this position.

I’ve been talking to kids a little bit about the idea of competing freedoms. I try really hard to keep discussions about politics on the level of institutions and structures with the kids, as I’ve mentioned before. Cyrus in particular has a habit of thinking only Republicans make bad choices, and I’m trying hard to disabuse him of that notion (though maybe he’s right…). We saw someone throw a fast-food bag out of a car the other day and he was like “Must be a Trump voter.”  In Texas, the Republican party bills itself as the party of individual liberty. Freedom to choose whether to be vaccinated. Freedom to choose whether to wear masks in public space. Freedom to choose to carry guns anywhere, anytime, under any conditions. But these freedoms seem to increasingly infringe on my freedom to keep my kids alive.

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When Cyrus was six months old, he fell and hit his mouth. It bled for about 10 seconds. We rushed him to the doctor to check for a concussion. We have our nurse after hours line on speed dial. Although we’re slightly less nervous on child three, we still are proactive parents who have a healthy respect for the medical establishment and have always loved our kid’s pediatricians (shout out to Dr. Jill Kasper, who would let me text her pictures of weird rashes Cy would get).

COVID has changed that game. Now, whenever a kid is sick, you need to play the game of “is it an ear infection or is it COVID.” You also need to do a real risk assessment of taking them into the doctor, knowing that the patient in the waiting room with you might have COVID. This is especially fraught for Maisie, who is too young to wear a mask. In Austin, where rates of pediatric COVID are pretty high, that’s a scary prospect.

On the first Saturday in August, Maisie started running a low-grade fever. We chalked it up to teething, and didn’t worry too much. But the fever stuck around, and five days in, it spiked to 105 over night. We took her to the doctor. She had a UTI, and an elevated white blood cell count. We started antibiotics, and when the fever didn’t go away, the doctor recommended we take her to the ER to screen for a kidney infection.

My anger at Greg Abbott over public schools had nothing on my fury at him over the state of hospitals in Austin. I knew we had to take her in, but I was just so scared of her (or us) being exposed to COVID. As we sat in the waiting room, watching the nurses work through triaging our fellow patients, there was a little girl who kept wanting to befriend Maisie. She was running up, smiling, giggling, excited to see a baby. And every time came near us, I felt a surge of fear. Toddlers can’t socially distance. They don’t get it. But I was so afraid she’d transmit whatever had brought her into the hospital to Maisie. I hate that the pandemic has caused us to be scared of kids. Hate it.

Luckily, Dell Children’s Hospital has a dedicated pediatric ER, has excellent COVID protocols, and we felt pretty ok while we were there. And Maisie is fine – all of the tests in the world later, she was given a clean bill of health (they did an ultrasound on her kidneys, when we found out she has an accessory spleen – what a world).

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The cynical part of me thinks that the weakening of public education and the medical systems is a feature not a bug of the way republicans govern – a tool of neoliberalism to privatize and corporatize services.

The kids have heard lots of stressed adult talk in the past few weeks as we’ve tried to assess risk. I think kids should, in general, be part of family conversations about decision making, but there’s no doubt it’s stressful for them right now. I’ve tried to frame it as righteous anger for them. We have the right to demand that our government take steps to protect kids. We have the right to expect that there is capacity in our hospital system. When your government doesn’t provide those, you can choose to stay quiet, or you can protest, or you can leave the system. For the game theorists in the room, it’s the exit/voice/loyalty game.

But exit is always a privilege. Privileges aren’t without costs, but there’s no doubt I’m exercising privileges other people don’t have by keeping my kids home this next year. And there are real dangers to opting out too – keeping everyone in a system means that everyone has a stake in that system surviving. Public education and health care ought to be public goods that everyone in society has access to, and everyone in society has a stake in – so that we invest in having those systems thrive. Obviously this is not the theory that Greg Abbott governs by.

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I don’t know exactly how you talk to your kids about this stuff – it’s so complicated, and it’s exhausting, and it’s so hard. But I do know that they’re owed an explanation and a voice, and a story for decisions that affect their lives. They need to know that they are political subjects. So we could tell them “you’re being homeschooled this year because we say so.” Or we could tell them “you’re being homeschooled this year because of the virus.” Or we could tell them “you’re being homeschooled this year because we don’t feel good about the way that schools are keeping kids safe from the virus.” Or we could tell them “you’re being homeschooled this year because the Texas state government didn’t give schools the resources they needed to keep kids safe from the virus.”

For my money, the last one is the framing we want – and puts the onus for change on the institutions that can actually make things better.

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What we’re reading/doing/thinking

In fun news, I was on NPR’s Marketplace for a hot second! My next newsletter is going to be about all the stuff I said that didn’t make it into the Marketplace story.

I think we’re late to this party, but Alma has recently discovered NumberBlocks on Netflix. It’s such an inventive show to teach number sense, and she loves it. Cyrus will watch it over her shoulder too!

We’re reading Grace Lin’s Where the Sea Turned to Silver right now, and it’s simply beautiful. This spring, we read her book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, which is part of the same series. Grace Lin is one of those impossibly talented people who can write stories kids and adults love. She also does her own artwork, and the full color illustrations are stunning. Look how beautiful that is!

Until next time, here’s hoping you and your family stay safe, healthy, and filled with righteous anger. xoxo