Andy Diacetis was at dinner a few weeks back with his wife when his friend, a doctor, made a stunning comment.
“Everybody in that facility is gonna die,” said the doctor, in reference to the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., where the first U.S. cases of coronavirus were confirmed. “It’s gonna get really ugly.”
That’s when Diacetis, 43, of Silverton, Oregon, located about an hour south of Portland, started to worry. His thoughts turned quickly to his wife Christine, a recovering cancer patient, and his 7-year-old daughter, Maggie.
Maggie, a second grader, doesn’t have any sort of underlying respiratory condition or other medical issues that would put her at risk for coronavirus. Children aren’t high risk for the virus. But her dad worried about Maggie becoming a carrier, and infecting her mom, who just finished up a round of chemotherapy and has a significantly weakened immune system.
Diacetis’s plight is familiar to many parents right now, as they weigh the risk and reward of keeping kids home from school. Do you pull your kid out of school, even if the absence isn’t excused? Do you wait it out until schools formally close?
That question nagged at Diacetis for a couple weeks, with the alarm rising the last couple days, as more cases were confirmed across the county and in the Northwest. The tipping point came Wednesday night, when the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive, and celebrity couple Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they tested positive for the virus in Australia. By the time Diacetis woke up Thursday, he’d made a decision.
“I really don’t want her to go to school,” he said to his wife just five minutes before he and Maggie were set to walk out the door. Christine agreed, and Maggie stayed home. Her parents emphasized that this was not a time for extra play dates or solo field trips.
But what happens next? That’s what parents everywhere are wondering.
In states where the outbreak is more pronounced, like Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday afternoon that all Seattle-area schools would close for at least six weeks. Just 36 hours earlier, on Wednesday morning, he said the state was creating contingency plans but didn’t think closing was necessary. Schools remain open in Oregon, though Gov. Kate Brown has banned gatherings of 250 people or more, which means most school assemblies, for example, are a no-go.
Ohio and Maryland became the first states in the nation Thursday to close down all public schools, and it’s inevitable more states will take similar action.
But in the meantime, it’s an ever-evolving situation and the target for success — or flattening the curve, as experts call it— seems to be constantly changing.
“You don’t want to keep your kid in a bubble, but you have to weigh the risk,” said Nezhat Baygie, a 41-year-old stay-at-home mom in Baltimore who has been worried about how susceptible her 8-year-old daughter, Aysha Johnson, might be to coronavirus.
Johnson has asthma, and is still recovering from a bout of pneumonia that she got at the end of February. It’s “always hard for her to bounce back,” said her mom, so Johnson is currently taking steroids and a preventative antibiotic. Does that put her at a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus? Baygie isn’t sure, but she doesn’t want to find out the hard way.
Thursday midday, she decided Friday was going to be Johnson’s last day — then, late Thursday afternoon, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan closed all K-12 schools. Baygie is hopeful moves like that will signal to the rest of America the severity of the situation.
“I know some people who aren’t taking it seriously,” she said. “Honestly, that NBA player [Rudy Gobert] who got it after making fun of it and laughing about it, that’s the textbook example.”
Before the decision to close schools, Baygie said, every parent she knew in the Baltimore area was debating pulling their kid out of class.
In Los Angeles, Wendi Hauser actually felt OK — until she started paying close attention to the news.
“I wasn’t concerned until Wednesday night, after I put my daughter to bed and was catching up on everything,” said Hauser, whose 7-year-old daughter, Maren, has mild asthma and lots of environmental allergies.
Since the outbreak first began a couple weeks ago, Hauser has been packing hand sanitizer in Maren’s lunchbox. Her biggest concern was actually herself — Hauser has severe asthma and “can’t have anyone bringing anything home.” She and her husband have been trying to balance caution with optimism.
But when Maren came home the other day and told her, “Mom, this kid at school said I have coronavirus because I have a cough!” Hauser knew she needed to act.
As of late Thursday, Los Angeles Unified — where Maren is a second grader — isn’t closing schools. But by next week, Maren will likely be home, excused absence or not. Hauser’s “already hunkering down,” collecting school supplies and lesson plans, ready to help Maren with remote learning.
She’s worried, she said, that the U.S. might have fallen behind in dealing with the pandemic.
“I wasn’t thinking it was going to become what it’s become,” Hauser said. “I guess I thought the government wouldn’t let it get this bad.”
Close by in Orange County, mom Carolyn McAuliffe continues to agonize over what to do.
“Having him in school right now goes against every maternal instinct I have,” said McAuliffe, whose 11-year-old son, Michael, has mild but persistent asthma.
McAuliffe is trying to navigate the risk of two school districts — Newport Mesa, where Michael is a fifth grader, and a neighboring district where her husband is a teacher.
McAuliffe kept Michael home early this week as panic and confirmed cases started ramping up, worried about his vulnerability. Then she was informed his absences were unexcused, and reluctantly sent him to class Thursday.
She and her husband disagreed over whether he should stay home, McAuliffe said, but she hoped that news of a closed Disneyland — which is just a few miles from their house — would make a stronger case. While she believes her son’s district is taking the situation seriously, “for kids with asthma or respiratory issues, this is a gray area,” she said.
She’s working hard not to panic, or send her son spinning into a panic of his own. She’s reminding him to vigorously wash his hands constantly, and to not touch his face. But it’s hard, she said. She turned on the TV the other day and California Gov. Gavin Newsom was on giving an address about the seriousness of the situation — while absentmindedly touching his face multiple times.
“This is still so new to everyone, even the most schooled clinician,” McAuliffe said. “We’re all learning as we go, and we don’t even know all the right questions to ask.”
As for if her teacher husband should stay home, too, McAuliffe said she can only solve one problem at a time.
“Right now, I’m focused on minimizing risk and hoping for the best,” she said. “This feels sort of like a sinking ship. I can only plug one hole at a time.”