The GOP Is Holding My Kids Hostage for a Third School Year
My 7-year-old cares about keeping his cancer surviving sister safe. I wish I could say the same about the governors banning mask mandates as part of their depraved culture war.
This weekend before school starts in Virginia, my wife and I will have to decide between my son’s education or our daughter’s health.
Millions of families around the country will be making similar painful compromises.
Our 5-year-old daughter Nusayba is an immuno-suppressed, Stage 4 cancer survivor who received a full liver transplant two years ago. Her brother, Ibrahim, is about to turn 7 and did virtual learning last year to keep his sister safe. Back in May, before the rise of the Delta variant, Nusayba’s doctors told us that it would be safe for her and her brother to both attend school in person in the fall. They were ecstatic, having spent the past two years in between hospitals, doctors’ visits, and stuck at home with their baby sister.
May was a glorious time. Americans were getting vaccinated, COVID-19 infections were falling, and the CDC had prematurely announced new guidelines saying that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks. We felt hopeful, but we remained very cautious. I was alarmed seeing people not wearing masks in packed indoor spaces with young children. I feared America was letting its guard down as the pandemic continued raging across the world. On social media, I was routinely mocked by trolls for my comments encouraging masking, which coincided with the rise of anti-vaxx and anti-mask disinformation mainstreamed by right-wing media and elected officials. I realized that we had lost a significant minority in this country, who were radicalized and would actively choose death for the sake of their “freedoms.” If the Grim Reaper hovering over you isn’t enough of a motivation to get vaccinated, no incentive or money prize will work.
For a third school year, my children are being held as hostages in their depraved culture war.
We’re aware that we have an unusual condition compared to most families, and we have excused ourselves from numerous social gatherings and taken significant precautions to protect Nusayba. As you can imagine, it’s been an immensely stressful few years, requiring immense sacrifices and accommodations by all members of our family, especially the kids. We’ve tried to alleviate this with Lego sets, trips to outdoor parks, art activities, and way too much screen time.
Thankfully, unlike GOP officials, my children are responsible and pro-life. They always wear their masks in public, practice social distancing, sanitize their hands, and are thoroughly aware of the existence and dangers of COVID-19. However, families plan, and COVID-19 laughs.
The pandemic, which according to Trump was supposed to magically disappear by the summer of 2020, has now evolved and mutated with the dangerous, contagious Delta variant thanks in part to his unvaccinated base that are willing petri dishes for the virus to mutate into numerous Greek letters.
In July, our doctors agreed with my wife and I that there’s no way we can responsibly send our children to school, predicting that this wave wouldn’t end at least until Thanksgiving.
Unfortunately, our county’s public school system arranged their fall semester based on the outdated May data and conditions. All kids would have to attend school in person, barring a medical emergency. The county assured us they are taking “layered prevention strategies,” which includes following the CDC’s latest recommendation and guidance that all students and staff, including those fully vaccinated, wear masks. But a few teachers and staff at our local elementary school, who are also concerned, confused and overwhelmed by the constantly changing landscape, told us the classrooms would be packed, not allowing for physical distancing, and that the kids would not be required to wear masks while eating in the cafeteria or during PE class.
How could we send our immuno-suppressed daughter Nusayba or our son Ibrahim to school when there are still no vaccines for kids and no vaccine mandates for teachers and school employees? Also, more and more data seems to show that Delta is responsible for a dual surge in childhood infections of COVID and respiratory syncytial virus, a highly contagious seasonal illness. Doctors are now saying that there’s potential for children with COVID-19 to develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome.
One option is to stop worrying, stop being scared, say a big “inshallah, everything will be fine” and send the kids to school with masks. But then we read stories out of Mississippi about how 1,000 children and 300 school staff tested positive for COVID in early August, and how 800 students and staff had to quarantine in one Arkansas district, and how 400 students had to quarantine just two days into the school year in a Florida Palm Beach school district.
Although we live in a county with high vaccination rates, we can’t afford to play with those odds given our daughter’s compromised health. Thankfully, we just found out this week that the county’s virtual classroom program has accepted Nusayba despite the fact she missed the May deadline to apply. My wife and I exhaled in relief.
However, they have not accepted Ibrahim and are insisting—as of now at least—that he attend the local public school in person with all the kids. Unfortunately, that school says they don’t have the resources or programs to accommodate virtual learning for him.
My wife and I have been scrambling all week, trying to talk to anyone on the phone, emailing supervisors, to try and convince them to make an exception for him. If he goes to school, gets sick, and comes back home with the virus, then Nusayba is compromised. My son, who is almost 7, is also traumatized by Nusayba’s cancer. He is always worried about bringing home COVID that would affect her health, but also disrupt our family again and send her and my wife to the hospital for prolonged periods of time. In the past year, his stress contributed to the worsening of his GERD, which is a painful gastroesophageal reflux.
In fact, my son is far more empathetic than the Republican governors, all vaccinated, who are stubbornly banning mask mandates and threatening to punish schools that do their utmost to protect their children. Arizona Gov. Ducey will punish schools requiring masks by denying them eligibility for a $163 million school grant. Gov. Abbott of Texas, who got coronavirus despite being vaccinated, will heal and recuperate with the best health care and medication, but won’t support masks and vaccines in schools. Florida Gov. DeSantis would rather push Regeneron and culture wars than masks even as his state is recording more than 20,000 new COVID-19 cases a day. It seems children’s safety is a necessary cost for advancing his political ambitions and appearances on Fox News. Their hypocrisy and shamelessness knows no bounds. Sen. Ted Cruz is calling for “zero mandates” as his kids safely attend a private school requiring masks.
I’m close to Loudoun County, the epicenter for the right-wing’s national coordinated attack against masks, critical race theory and transgender rights in school. These anti-vax and anti-science extremists are now joined by the Proud Boys and GOP officials, and they are perfectly fine sacrificing our kids’ health to advance their regressive culture war to maintain white supremacy. Unfortunately, their crazy is contagious and radicalizing parents who are showing up to local school meetings and attacking mask mandates.
Amidst the blitzkrieg of infuriating and painful headlines, we received one small piece of good news. Our county’s school district is requiring all employees to be vaccinated or submit routine negative COVID-19 tests in October. That’s something, though it still leaves the kids exposed for the entire month of September. Government agencies and private actors have to reflect the will of the majority and implement vaccine mandates. President Biden must exercise all of his strength to direct the Education Department to use its powers to overrule GOP state executives who are preventing local jurisdictions from implementing their masking rules. And we desperately need vaccines for children under the age of 12 and have to focus our energy on supporting this effort as quickly as is possible.
In the meantime, my wife and I, like millions of parents across America, will be in perpetual anxiety, see-sawing in our decisions as we try to protect our children. Right now, we’re in limbo. If Ibrahim is not accepted to the county’s virtual learning program, we can’t send him to public school. That means we will have to spend money on a private tutor or forfeit a semester of his education.
Ultimately, we’ll make the necessary compromises to save our daughter’s life. However, a year-and-a-half into this pandemic, those are compromises that families in the world’s most powerful and wealthy nation shouldn’t have to make. And we would not if the party that insists it is pro-life and pro-children wasn’t so willing to sacrifice our kids as canaries in the COVID-19 coal mine.