Pandemic: The Return

We are coming up on one year of near complete isolation. While “conservative” has never been an adjective I would use for our family, in this instance we have been. We saw little reason to risk our health unnecessarily, and knew that removing ourselves as a node from the network also increased the survivabilityin some small wayof those around us. And a large part of that has been the lack of certainty: a year in, and with three vaccines in circulation, we still don’t fully understand the way in which COVID-19 affects the body.

This is particularly true of children. There seems to be a broad consensus that kids are slightly less likely to contract the disease caused by the virus in circulation, and far less likely to have serious symptoms or die from it. There have been a number of concerns that, for example, mutations might change this equation. And there are the scary stories of long-haul COVID among young teens. This uncertainty makes me reluctant to expose my kids unnecessarily.

Luckily, the kids’ school, Phoenix Modern, has been enormously responsive and thoughtful in their approach. They have made space for kids throughout whose parents could not keep them home, and also for parents like us who pulled our kids home early on in the pandemic. They have rapidly adapted to online learning, and made more than the best out of a bad situation. I can say pretty confidently that there is no “achievement gap” for my own kids, and I suspect the same is true of their classmates. That is a testament to teachers and administrators who put the overall health and well-being of the students and the community first.

And things have been looking up. Despite a blip over the last week or two, new cases have been on a downward trend in AZ. The main indicator I’ve been tracking over the year is a 7-day mean of new infections in Arizona. The below represents just a couple weeks shy of the full year. As you can see, we are roughly where we were at the start of the school year. And there are two pretty distinct waves of infection in Arizona. It would be reasonable to expect future waves as well. The giant question mark is what effect vaccinations might have on this.

Thanks to Governor Ducey’s approach to trusting his gut and his donors over any kind of evidence, public schools (including charters like ours) are required to restart in-person instruction next week. Our school had planned a hybrid return for after spring break in mid-April, and given the trends, that seemed like a reasonable plan. Unfortunately, the governor seems set on unreasonable plans, which has already cost thousands of Arizonans their lives. Not only is there a return to schools, but a simultaneous opening of gyms, restaurants, and bars at full capacity. This will almost certainly prolong the high infection rate.

Our kids won’t be going back next week. We already set criteria for return, based in part on guidelines established by the AZ Department of Health last October (PDF). These include:

  • Seven-day average new infections in the state under 750 and declining.
  • Positivity rate under 7% in the state.
  • Both Jamie and I vaccinated.

When we pulled the kids out of school this time last year, I had the pessimistic view that they would likely be out for the 2020 calendar year, and we would reassess at that point. Obviously, no one was going back to school after winter break this year. I have friends who now are saying they won’t start their kids back to school until Spring of ’22. While I understand the pessimism, after multiple setbacks, these vaccines appear to be effective, and while they won’t knock out the pandemic on their own, and I am deeply concerned we won’t get vaccination rates high enough to damp down stupid behaviors, I suspect we will meet our “family metrics” before the end of April.

I remain concerned about the long-term effects of contracting COVID, particularly for kids. If we knew what those effects were, and how frequently they appeared, we could make a bet based on the odds. It is so much harder to make that bet when you don’t know those odds and when you are gambling with the future of your children. But I know that I am not going to trust Ducey to make that choice for me, and that I am going to do my best to make these decisions based on the best available metrics and data.

In the meantime, I’m going to have to start teaching my kids how to be in public again. They’ll need actual clothes (not just PJs), and will have to learn to sit in chairs. Wish me luck.

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