For Michigan parents, a hellscape of nasal swabs, missed work and fury
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Betsy Beaudoin panicked for a moment when she and her son got to the bus stop near their Novi home Thursday morning.
Was this the no-bus-service day for her fifth-grader in Novi Community School District, which runs buses just four days a week due to a driver shortage? Or was it the no-transportation day for her seventh-grade daughter enrolled in another school building in the same district?
The bus arrived to pick up Beaudoin’s son. But Beaudoin’s friend wasn’t so lucky, texting that she was scrambling to get her child to school. Then another friend who is a teacher texted to say she was at an urgent-care center getting her symptomatic kid a COVID test, and that her school had no one to teach her kindergarten class.
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After finally getting her own kids to school, the frustrated mom rattled off a Facebook post that could have been written by millions of Michigan parents.
“I sat here thinking about all the extra stuff COVID has given us to remember,” she wrote, “and I am exhausted by it all.”
Parenting during the 22 months of the pandemic has always been tough. But in recent weeks, the omicron variant has turned it into a hellscape of nasal swabs, contact tracing and school emails announcing changed schedules and protocols.
Some school districts, including Detroit and Battle Creek, have pushed back a return to in-class learning to sidestep the worst of omicron. Schools across the state were told this week they could cut isolation and quarantine from 10 days to five, while Lansing passed a bill allowing any school employee with a high school degree to substitute teach, all efforts to help keep more schools open.
Meanwhile, for hundreds of thousands of Michigan parents, disrupted work schedules, whipsawing school edicts and the foreboding of a late-night cough from a child’s bedroom have made this month one of the most stressful in the almost two-year pandemic.
“If it was a juggling act before,” wrote Novi parent Laurah Bajorek on Facebook, “it’s like we added a couple of chainsaws and a ferret to the mix.”
Consider, for instance, how Gino Mangino’s week is going.
Mangino, whose 13-year-old son is in Utica Community Schools, was in Indiana on a work project when his son back in Macomb County tested positive for COVID. His wife, also at home, had a sore throat and fever but had no more at-home kits to test herself. So Mangino spent part of Thursday scouring the internet for N-95 masks and ordering Noodles & Company meals for his quarantined family. Earlier, he’d driven an hour from his Indiana work site to a Costco for five test kits, with plans to bring them home to Macomb County this weekend.
“I figure I’ll need one eventually,” Mangino said. “I got one for my niece, but now she’s tested positive. I’ll give some to my neighbors — the dad is positive but the son and daughter don’t have tests.”
He likens the pandemic to a “war,” and he can’t allow himself to get tired while doing everything he can to protect his family. Sometimes, though, he can’t help getting angry.
“I’m frustrated that it’s gotten so far out of hand, with people pushing back at everything that could reduce the problem,” Mangino said.
His kids wear masks at school, but they are the exception. Masks are optional in Utica schools, as they are for about half of Michigan’s 1.4 million public school students.
While face-mask and in-person learning policies vary around the state, the stress felt by parents seems close to universal.
“I call it pandemic fatigue,” said Laura Carino, principal at Parkview Elementary in Novi. “Parents are just tired of the pandemic in general, and everyone’s craving what we used to have.”
That includes Carino, a parent herself who has spent much of the past week doing everything but the job she was hired for at Parkview.
On Wednesday, she found herself subbing for an absent kindergarten teacher. Earlier in the week, she led a gym class and also passed out juice boxes in the cafeteria to fill in for employees who were home ill. Back at her own home, Carino’s daughter missed two weeks of school earlier in the pandemic because her teacher tested positive for COVID, and her son is disappointed because honors band was cancelled due to the virus.
“Schools are supposed to be a safe place for their kids,” Carino told Bridge. “But we have to send kids home for runny noses we wouldn’t have done two years ago.”
Some Michigan school districts, including in Ann Arbor, have closed for days this school year as “mental health” breaks for staff — breaks parents don’t get.
“Every decision (parents) make is pandemic-related to keep kids safe,” Carino said. “It never has the ability to go to the back burner and that’s what’s so exhausting.”
The Mangino family in Macomb County has been extraordinarily cautious since COVID-19 emerged in Michigan in March 2020. They’re all vaccinated and wear masks almost everywhere, including outside at Disney World and inside at extended family gatherings, Gino Mangino said. They avoided the virus until this month, when omicron swept the state.
“Doing what I have to do for my family, that’s just what I do,” Mangino said. “It’s dealing with people in the outside world that bothers me.”
Back in the Beaudoin household, COVID’s impact on schools is “hanging over us,” Betsy Beaudoin said. “We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Two days a week, she or her husband leave for work late to get their kids to school and leave early to pick them up, because of the no-bus days. At work, her office is constantly short-handed because of illness and difficulty finding replacement workers.
At home, the family is “struggling with more anxiety,” she said. Even a note reminding families about pajama day for spirit week wasn’t fun this year; it became just another thing an overburdened mom had to plan for.
Her children, she said, are no longer “comfortable being around big groups. My son asked if he could start wearing two masks at school. I bought him a better mask instead.”
So far, the family has avoided the virus, but not without heavy tradeoffs.
“I feel we’ve missed a lot of fun,” the mother of three said, though she noted that “we haven’t had to bury anyone we love.
“It’s trying to find where there is the least harm, finding what will hurt our children the least.”
Beaudoin recalled a day in early December when Novi cancelled school in the wake of the Oxford school shooting and copycat threats made around the state. Her older children asked why, but “my 6-year-old just said OK. She doesn’t even wonder anymore.
“We’re kind of adjusting to it, which makes me sad,” Beaudoin said.
“It seems almost normal to the kids that things get canceled and plans are not dependable anymore.”
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