This article has been updated.

First thing Thursday morning, I checked my email for the results of my daughter’s COVID-19 test. When I saw it came back negative, I felt such relief and gratitude. But for a moment, my heart felt tight. Do I want her to go back to school? 

It’s a question we weighed as the new school year approached, assessing all the pros and cons. It wasn’t an easy decision, but we realized that we can’t live in emergency mode anymore. We are reaching the acceptance phase of pandemic parenting, and cautiously getting on with our lives. 

My daughter is 11 years old and just starting sixth grade at a charter school. Last year, she primarily participated in distance learning. For over a year, we erred on the extremely cautious side of the coin, limiting direct contact with others aside from our small family bubble. We tried to make the best of it, with Minecraft playdates and greenway hikes, but life is just not the same when you can’t see your friends and talk to your teachers. Over time, remote education made our daughter feel lonely and disconnected from school and life. In April, she went back to school on campus, and her happiness and academic performance bounced back. 

In June, our son, who is 14 and starting high school, got vaccinated. We watched the COVID-19 data for San Antonio and saw vaccination rates climb while infection rates declined. Even though our daughter is too young to get vaccinated, at that time we felt confident about sending our kids back to school in person. 

In July, the delta variant caused coronavirus cases to creep up again, and we considered our options. If we enrolled our kids at virtual schools or chose to homeschool, they would lose their spots at their in-demand charter schools and would get waitlisted if we tried to re-enroll them. The Texas Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have funded remote education; instead, kids have to attend school in person, or they are counted absent.

Now that it’s August, school is starting, and COVID-19 cases are high. In response to conflicting rulings from state and local governments and the courts, we’ve watched our kids’ schools go back and forth on mask rules.

Again we asked ourselves, do we send our kids back to school in person? 

These days, my rule of thumb is to consider if I would have done this activity during flu season before the pandemic. Some activities that fail this test include going on a cruise ship, seeing a movie in a theater (unless it’s a matinee), and taking young children to an indoor attraction (like a ball pit) unless we get there right when they open. 

So, last week, my daughter went to school on campus. She wore her mask all day, except for eating lunch and sipping water. At bedtime after the fourth day of school, she said she had a headache. The next morning, she still had the headache, and also had nausea, body aches, and a fever. 

Annika Cotton at school orientation on August 10, 2021
Annika Cotton at school orientation on August 10, 2021 Credit: Courtesy / Inga Cotton

I had seen this coming. I am the administrator of the San Antonio Charter Moms discussion group on Facebook, and I asked the members for advice about COVID-19 testing. They had lots of tips, from helpful physicians’ offices to booking pharmacy appointments and buying rapid test kits. Some lucky members have kids going to schools that test everyone on campus weekly. I wish every school did that. 

After I booked a testing appointment online, I took my daughter to a trailer parked on Fredericksburg Road. She pulled down her mask, swabbed her nose, sneezed a few times, and turned in the test kit. We drove home and she took a nap. I tried to be calm while settling in for a two-day wait to get the results. 

That evening, we got an email from her school that there was a confirmed coronavirus case in her classroom. Through the grapevine, we knew of a handful of cases among sixth graders at her school, including her best friend. Another friend missed the first weeks of school because her dad was under quarantine. It seemed inevitable that she would test positive. The school nurse called and kindly explained how long she would have to stay home from school, assuming she tested positive. Her teachers sent homework packets — a weird flashback to late March 2020. 

After getting word of our daughter’s negative test Thursday, her symptoms changed over the weekend. On Sunday, our doctor recommended taking an at-home COVID-19 test, and our daughter tested positive. We also got word that day that her school closed sixth grade for a week and instituted a mask requirement for all campuses in San Antonio. 

Now that we are going through this process, we have to ask ourselves again: Do we send our kids back to school in person? Applying my rule of thumb, the answer is yes. During flu season before the pandemic, I sent my kids to school. 

We’re going to do what we can to stay safe. Our kids wear masks at school. Our daughter will get vaccinated as soon as it’s possible for her age group. I wish everyone would make those choices, but families reach different conclusions based on their worldviews and risk tolerance. 

This is what back to school looks like at the acceptance stage of the pandemic. We do our research. We weigh our risks. In addition to fact-finding, my friends and I are constantly calling, texting, and messaging each other to try to figure out what to do. And still, we are second-guessing every decision we make. For now, we are taking it one day at a time, doing our best to get through this stage safely and help my kids get a great education that will help them launch their futures. 

Inga Cotton

Inga Cotton is a parent activist and blogs at San Antonio Charter Moms about school choice and local educational activities for families. She has two children. Read her blog at www.sachartermoms.com.