‘I can’t be the reason your child got sick and died. It would ruin me. There is no EASY answer.’: Elementary speech and language pathologist shares why returning to school isn’t worth the risk

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“This school year will be different in so many ways. While I’m not a teacher, I love my job as an elementary school speech and language pathologist. I have the littlest of the littles in our Pre-K 3’s, the ‘not quite a teenager’ in our 5th graders, and everyone in between.

Returning to school has never been a controversial topic; it’s just always been something we do. I look forward to learning about the new kids on my caseload, seeing my coworkers, and getting back into a regular routine every August. This year, I’m afraid, and not for all the reasons you think.

The first day of school is going to be hard. I’m going to see so many sweet, familiar faces (from above the nose), and when they come up to hug me, I’m going to have to stop them. I’m going to have to bend down and explain to your sweet 7-year-old that we aren’t allowed to hug right now. I’m going to have to do that repeatedly, all day long. I’m going to have to see the twinge of hurt in their eyes when their request for a hug gets denied each time.

I’m going to have to tell your kindergartners they can’t hold hands, even though we spend SO MUCH TIME teaching kids to be friends with each other. I’m going to have to tell that shy, little boy who reaches for my hand for some reassurance and security, he can’t hold my hand. I’m going to have to give them an answer when they ask me why. I’m NOT going to tell them, ‘It isn’t safe,’ because I can’t bear the thought of them growing up thinking it’s not safe to hold someone’s hand.

Courtesy of Rebecca Casey

I’m going to have to watch your exceptionally bright child crawl further back into their shell, because even though their speech has improved so much, it’s too hard to understand them with a mask on, so they stop trying to participate in class or talk to their friends.

I’m going to have to work with your child with autism without being close to them. (It’s not possible). I have to teach them I’m not scary; it’s the same old me behind the mask. I will have to fight through their stress and sensory overload from this new situation, and watch them regress.

I’m going to have to work with your Pre-K student without letting them sit next to me and lean against my lap, even though physical touch is comforting to them, and is part of their social-emotional development. I’m going to ask them to do things I ask an 8-year-old to do, even though they are only 3-4 years old. I can’t even give them a high-five when they do a great job.

I have to do all these things that break my heart because I could not live with myself if I was the reason your child got sick and died. It would ruin me. I’m being put in a position where I have to hurt their feelings by rejecting a hug, stunt their social growth with socially distant friendship activities, and spend the limited time I have with them trying to comfort them and explain things I don’t have answers to.

I have to do those things, because the alternative is NOT doing them and taking the crazy low (because, yes, I know it’s super low) risk the one time I don’t, I expose YOUR child and they possibly die. That risk is too great. I’ve accepted I may have to make a choice between their lives and mine. I’ve practiced the active shooter drills with them, and I have no hesitations about putting myself between them and anything that could cause them harm. I signed up for that. I am not okay with being the thing that causes them harm. I can’t imagine attending a funeral for a child I work with. I just can’t.

My mental health–it takes a toll, friends. They aren’t just students. I love them too. I care about them too. I take time to learn their favorite colors, topics, and games. They are part of our school family; they are loved.

I’m afraid for me, for my family. We are being careful. I’m at risk, so I’m extra careful. I wouldn’t want to put my loved ones through the pain of loss, and I absolutely don’t want to lose any of them.

I understand schools are vital pieces to our lives. Parents need them. Students need them. Educators need them. However, opening schools this way, under these circumstances, just doesn’t seem worth the cost to me. There will be an end to Covid-19, though not soon enough. Pandemics end. They are temporary. The consequences of acting too soon or too hastily are permanent. It’s hard. There is no EASY answer.

I want nothing more than for this August to be like all the previous ones, but it cannot be. Those previous August’s were not plagued by a pandemic. This is not our new normal — we must weather this storm as a community, so we can get back to our REAL normal, with the least amount of lives lost. So, that next August, I can hug your child and see their smiling face, and school can return to a place of whole-person growth and success.”

Courtesy of Rebecca Casey

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Rebecca Casey, 30, of Florida. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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