I made cupcakes for my daughter’s birthday this year: vanilla cake topped with pale-blue frosting. I love to cook, and when it comes to baking, I am more than comfortable with things like bread and pies. But the kind of artfully frosted desserts that she’s become enthralled with thanks to The Great British Bake Off and Sugar Rush are not my forte. So I was sweating as I stood at the counter of our Bed-Stuy apartment, piping buttercream frosting out of the fluted metal tip I borrowed from her cake-decorating set into little flowerlike puffs. They weren’t perfect, but they looked fancy enough; I was fairly certain she would love them.
I wanted to do something special for her — not only because she was turning 7, and not only because in the past six months she had negotiated moving to both a new state and a new school, but also because we had already pared down her birthday plans. It was early March, and our idea of taking her and a friend into Manhattan to visit the American Girl doll store no longer seemed wise. What about the virus? What about the lawyer from New Rochelle who had apparently gone to work in the city before finding out that he was sick? A party would have to wait, and we would instead do something extra for her to celebrate at school.
On March 12, the day I carefully drove the cupcakes to her school, walked them through the halls, and brought them into the classroom for my daughter and her friends to eat, there were just 95 reported COVID-19 cases in New York City. My hands were already red and cracked from endless washing, and I had stopped going into my office in lower Manhattan earlier that week. Grocery stores were brimming with panicked buyers, toilet paper and beans were becoming scarce, and — though I didn’t know it then — I was already sick.
The cupcakes, the gift bags full of dollar-store toys and candy, the afternoon my daughter spent in her bedroom eating pizza and watching a movie with a friend … March 12 was our last futile glimpse of normalcy before the reality of the pandemic truly settled in. Early the next morning, a full week before New York’s stay-at-home order was put into effect, we left for Maine — where we lived for three years before moving to Brooklyn this past fall and where we were able to keep our house. We thought we were getting out before things got bad, not knowing that it was already too late for us. That night, I started having chills.
At the ER the next day, when my flu tests came back negative and my COVID-19 test was sent out, I sobbed into my face mask. I had gone into my daughter’s school just days before, I told the nurse, and I had brought the class homemade cupcakes. I know I was careful while making them, willing myself not to do what I normally would have done: dip a finger into the frosting on occasion. Would that last bit of pre-pandemic normalcy leave one of her classmates or her teacher infected? Would I inadvertently kill a parent or grandparent?
My test came back positive, and the disease progressed, sending pain pulsing up and down my back and neck, turning my brain to mush, and sneaking strange acrid smells into my nostrils. We didn’t yet know if my wife and daughter were sick too (they were), so I sunk into what ended up being almost a week alone in the office above our garage. I spent much of that time sleeping, nursing endless throbbing headaches and backaches, and reading books that I can now barely recall. What I do remember very clearly is trying to get in touch with the right people at my daughter’s school so that I could inform her teacher and classmates that they had been exposed. My daughter’s teacher, who had only recently come back from maternity leave, had to be separated from her infant daughter while she quarantined. Being notified that a sick parent had been in the classroom surely caused untold fear for the other families too. I don’t pray in any traditional sense, but I cried and pleaded with whoever might have been listening, asking them to please not let anyone die because of me.
I try not to dwell on it because it’s impossible to know, but sometimes I let myself wonder how and when, exactly, I was exposed to the virus. I think about the elevators at my office, the turnstiles and MetroCard machines at the train station, the time I accidentally took the train in the wrong direction, and the person who was coughing near me while I headed back downtown. Was it the copy of The New Yorker I stole from the therapist’s waiting room? Something I was exposed to on that last trip to the bar at the end of the block to get a beer? The web of contact is so vast that it seems inconceivable that I didn’t get anyone beyond my immediate family sick — although, as far as I know, that’s the case.
New York City families have until this Friday to decide whether to send their kids back to school in the fall for some in-person instruction or to continue to be fully remote. It’s an incredibly complicated choice, and each family has to evaluate their own situation, balancing their kids’ educational and social needs, their own child-care needs, and the vulnerabilities of their pod. At root lies the question of whether in-person instruction will get someone sick. In New York, at least, where positive test rates hover around one percent, the chances of exposure at school are low, but (as Emily Oster pointed out in a recent Times op-ed) some cases are inevitable. That means that, at some point, there will probably be a parent in the same position I found myself in in March: racked with guilt, retracing every step, wondering what I’d tell my daughter if her classmates and teacher fell ill because of me. As much as I wouldn’t wish the virus on anyone, I also wouldn’t wish that psychic toll on another parent or teacher or especially a child. How would you explain to your kid that they got their teacher sick, or that you got their teacher sick? What if someone dies?
This isn’t to say that remote learning is necessarily a better option. My own kid rejected the Zoom meetings and the endless feed of Google Classroom assignments all but completely. There are a lot of good, justifiable reasons to choose to send your child to in-person school — and for some people, it doesn’t feel like a choice. But I’d be lying if I said the cupcakes weren’t a factor in our decision to keep our daughter at home this fall. (But aren’t we all immune now, having recovered from the virus? Maybe, but the research still isn’t clear on what antibodies grant in terms of immunity, and for how long. As the CDC puts it, “we do not know how much protection the antibodies may provide or how long this protection may last.”) With remote-friendly work and a relatively high tolerance for chaos, we’re lucky to be in a position where we can attempt to manage keeping her home — but we’re also probably acting in response to our near brush with becoming our school’s patient zero.
In every decision around the pandemic — whether to see family or go on vacation, whether to go to a restaurant or to take the subway, whether to wear a mask (yes, just wear the mask) — we’re all wrestling with the same questions: How do we keep each other safe? How much caution should we take? How much personal discomfort should we endure for the sake of our communities? Some of those decisions have gotten easier as the shutdown has continued and the world has, in some marginal ways, started to adjust. There’s a small thrill to be found ordering drinks to-go at the bar, and I was already overdue by months for a haircut in March, so why even bother now? Other decisions — like whether or not to send your child to school — have only become more fraught.
So it’s remote learning again for at least the first quarter of second grade, and not just out of concern for our daughter. If kids like her who can more readily stay at home do so, classrooms will be that much safer for the students and teachers who have to be there. Without my daughter in the classroom, that’s another six-foot circle of space that’s free, one less pair of kid-hands to wash clean in the old porcelain trough sinks that only have cold taps, and one less collection of droplets that, even with a mask, could end up hanging in the air.
As a 7-year-old, my daughter can ride a bike and can get lost in a book that she can now read to herself. There have been moments with her during quarantine, especially this summer, when the reality of the pandemic felt far away. But she asks questions about what she’ll be able to do when quarantine is over: Can she have an end-of-quarantine party? Can she and her buddy have a bake sale at Fort Greene Park? Will she be able to hug her friends? Even if she was going to be back in school, things would by no means be normal. Normal is still a long way off.