By Rabbi Yael Buechler | January 12, 2022 | Originally published in Mothermag.com
“That’s not my mask!” my three-year-old exclaimed as I tried to fit him with the new surgical accessory he will be wearing to school this week. Change is hard for everyone, let alone a preschooler accustomed to wearing cloth masks for as long as he can remember. “It’s tie-dye,” I offered, trying to rationalize the change though I knew that he, like me, greatly prefers the soft feel of jersey fabric.
I never imagined that parenting would involve negotiating with a preschooler on medical-related matters. Leading up to winter break, I pleaded with my son to wear a mask at recess, even though his teachers (and the C.D.C.) said it was kosher to remove them outdoors. I still don’t know if he complied.
Like other families, we spent the first year of the pandemic hunkered down at home. The following year, my preschooler and his four-year-old brother returned to school—while we anxiously awaited an email announcing that one or the other’s class was in quarantine. This wave of Omicron in year three is pushing me—and other parents of young children—to a new level of anxiety.
The usual distractions, like TV bingewatching, don’t help me anymore. Even the second season of Emily in Paris, with its bright and outlandish outfits, couldn’t filter out Omicron dread. I want to give my younger son every protection in the world, and I want the vaccine to be safe and effective when kids under 5 are finally able to receive it. But for now, my hands are tied: He’s not yet eligible for the vaccine like his older brother.
In the meantime, it feels like I’m making momentous health decisions for him every day. Should I allow him to use the elevator in our apartment building, or is that increasing his risk? Do I continue sending him to a school where he can learn and socialize with his peers—even though it surely increases his chances of getting Covid-19, given the speed at which this variant is spreading? We live in the Bronx which has the highest positivity rate of all of the New York City boroughs, at a whopping 27%. Sometimes I wonder if we should just throw up our hands and give in to the likelihood that this virus will enter our home sooner or later.
Experts say this variant is milder—which is great, except they’re mostly talking about individuals who are double vaccinated and boosted. In fact, just last week C.D.C. director Rochelle Walensky told reporters that we are “sadly…seeing the rates of hospitalizations increasing for children 0-4, who are not currently eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations.” Bottom line: I would greatly prefer that my three-year-old not get this virus.
I work as a rabbi in an elementary school. I’m not as concerned about the transmission rates there since most students and faculty that should be home are at home—that list is very long right now. And overall, the parents and administration—I include myself in both categories—have done as much as possible to establish safe pandemic protocols and uphold them.
Yet with younger, nursery-age students, social distancing isn’t really possible, and enforcing consistent mask-wearing is tough. Kids still need to eat snacks and lunch, and have rest time (which we could all use at this point!)—which are unmasked activities.
Upon returning to school after New Year’s, my son brought home five projects from nursery school: a toilet-paper penguin with cotton balls surrounding it, paper hands with statements of gratitude, two abstract pieces, and a birdfeeder. Some of these projects were left over from 2021, when his school thankfully closed early to reduce potential transmissions.
As I walked in the door, he was eager to explain each project to me, insisting that we immediately find a place to hang the birdfeeder (alas, there is no backyard or balcony here).
My son didn’t see the tears in my eyes as I removed my winter coat and mask and breathed in a whiff of normalcy. For a moment there, I envied that penguin, so cozy and safe in his cotton display.
Writer and mother of two Rabbi Yael Buechler is the founder of MidrashManicures.com, which creates fashion items for Jewish holidays. She’s excited for the debut of Matza Pajamas, inspired by her three-year-old, which will help her get through another pandemic Passover.