Editor’s note: The following is Patch Field Editor Russ Crespolini’s, hopefully, weekly column. It is reflective of his opinion alone.

It is an archaic expression borne of a practice in a time we’ve mostly forgotten. Sending a canary into a coal mine to see if the air was safe to breathe. It was a common practice in the 20th century to use these animals as an early-warning signal for toxic gases. If the canary died, it wasn’t safe to go in.

That is the imagery that came aborning, unbidden and unwelcome, to me late last night when I was thinking about schools across the Garden State opening in the middle of a global pandemic.

One of those schools will house my nine-year-old daughter come Wednesday.

We’ve been writing a lot about schools opening up for fall instruction and how that would look. The guidance from the state has been confusing, and challenging for districts to implement. Then once hybrid plans were almost complete, The rules changed and districts were told an all-virtual option must be included.

Teachers and support staff, not satisfied with some plans began to ask for, reasonable, health-related, accommodations and that caused some districts to switch plans as there simply weren’t enough employees to safely pull off in-person learning.

And even the hybrid plans, while comprehensive and well-meaning, are shifting a schedule of cohorts that makes the refrigerator calendar look like a crime scene.

Parents all over New Jersey are wracked with worry and guilt, so afraid to make the “wrong” decision for their child.

And I am among them,

My daughter has not had the easiest year. In the beginning of the year she had to deal with the fallout of my having a brain tumor diagnosis and subsequent brain surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. I recovered and came back to work just as the pandemic really took hold here, so the world didn’t give us much breathing room.

And on March 13 she lost:

  • A main stage role in a community theater production

  • Her second softball season

  • In-person learning in her second home, her elementary school

  • Her connection to her friends, costars and classmates

The two weeks we were told it would last elongated to two months and longer. Her summer camp was canceled. Her father lost his summer teaching jobs due to low enrollment, and we struggled, all of us, with anxiety and depression over what we were seeing happen all around us.

And our story, is like everyone else’s. Sadly our story is better than many others who lost jobs and loved ones.

When I looked over the plan for my daughter to return to school as part of a cohort, four hours a day a few days a week, I didn’t know what to do. And finding sensible guidance was near impossible.

Online in public and private groups people harangue and stir up guilt by showing their own version of the numbers, false equivalency comparisons and competing articles.

If you wore a mask, you were a sheep being controlled by the government. If you didn’t, you were a selfish science denier. If you needed kids to go back to school you didn’t care if faculty, staff and children were sick. If you wanted to homeschool you were overreacting and acting paranoid.

There was no respite from it. Everywhere you went you were made to feel guilty of not conforming one way or another. You were being told your local officials were, at best, incompetent, and at worst actively trying to destroy your lives.

And that is when the cold marble settled in the pit of your stomach: there is no help out there to make this choice. You have to make this choice, as a family, on your own.

So I debate myself, and I sound like Sam Waterson in “Law and Order.”

“My daughter misses her friends, your honor. She misses her school, and she wants to go back,” I say talking to the jury box full of my doppelgängers. “The pain and the anxiety and the trauma of this isolation is eclipsing her COVID risk. How can I deny her a chance for a few hours of semi-normalcy?”

The other me at the defense table is quick to point out there is still so much we don’t know about this pandemic.

“We’ve learned that children are carriers and can spread it to their loved ones, judge. Like my daughter could spread it to me or my niece could spread it to my parents,” the other me motions to them sitting in the courthouse seats. “And children who are testing positive sometimes develop multi-system inflammatory syndrome, which can require hospitalization.”

“Objection!” I cry at myself from the prosecution table. “We have very few cases of that in New Jersey.”

“That’s right counselor,” I sneer back at the other me. “Because schools have been closed and the threat of spread has been reduced!”

And the judge version of me sits paralyzed, not knowing what to do.

But all the debating and all the good intentions and hard work of the local school districts boils down to this one decision. Many families are hurting because they need to work and can’t because of the hybrid and virtual learning schedule. These families are literally looking at choosing between their livelihood and their lives.

Teachers are being vilified, administrators shamed.

But all of that is background noise because the decision is still yours to make. And for us, we decided my daughter, my entire world, would be back in school in her cohort on Wednesday.

I trust her district, her school and her teachers. I trust we will all take precautions and be as safe as possible. For us, this is the decision.

But is it the right one? I don’t know. Only time will let us know what was the right decision to make. Schools are being treated as a test bed for indoor reopenings. Not dining or movie theaters, but schools. And the staff and students are being treated, at best, as guinea pigs.

And at worst, as canaries.

Russ Crespolini is a Field Editor for Patch Media, adjunct professor and college newspaper advisor. His columns have won awards from the National Newspaper Association and the New Jersey Press Association.

He writes them in hopes of connecting with readers and engaging with them. And because it is cheaper than therapy. He can be reached at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on the Long Valley Patch

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