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Natick - Local Town Pages

Coming Back Amid Covid

By Sean Sullivan
As winter months start to set in, they bring a sense of hibernation that seems to hover over the horizon. Then suddenly, it’s here. Cold and snow slow down the flow of life somewhat, like sap growing sluggish inside the tree.
Yet that sentiment likely doesn’t sync or sit especially well with parents this season. Again they are increasingly wandering a wilderness, an ever-shifting landscape of Covid policies and data points as children return to school amid this latest surge.
And while this time around we are all equipped with better gear with which to weather the wily and surging storm - vaccines, treatments and hard-won experience - the best way forward is far from clear. That uncertainty has been the source of an undiagnosed, but widely agreed-upon, psychological symptom of the times:
“I am feeling decision fatigue,” said Sophanny McArdle.
In their version of the now-familiar story, the McArdle family had been planning a trip to Grenada before Covid’s widespread emergence in early 2020. The vacation was tabled, in limbo until some elusive time when strictures and schedules allowed.
Quite recently, that time had arrived. Amid ever-rising vaccination rates and many months of pandemic-life experience, the McArdles decided to make good on their vacation plans. Christmas would have their two children out of school for a few weeks, and Covid forecasting over autumn months didn’t seem daunting.
Sophanny and her husband Rod had weighed the potential risks of travel against staying at home, and decided to make the trip. Airlines had mask mandates in place for months, and they and their children would be assiduously wearing theirs during the flights. Their hotel would be at fifty-percent capacity, and balmy weather would allow for ample time outdoors and little interaction with others.
That secluded hotel stay and safe distance from strangers seemed preferable to holiday weeks at home during school vacation. The latter would likely involve play-dates with friends of their 8- and 10-year-old children, visits during which it’s nigh impossible to prevent mask slip-ups and close-quarter interactions.
Travelling abroad meant the family needed to show negative Covid tests from a professional testing facility within 24 hours of boarding their plane. That required timing the results of their four tests (at $150. each) with their departure time. All part of the new logistics of living and parenting during the age of Covid.
“We really did feel safe taking the trip,” said Sophanny, a vacation that the two parents agreed was a much-needed means of mental health maintenance. The nuances and details that went into making that decision seemed unconsidered by certain friends and acquaintances, said Sophanny. Some still questioned the wisdom of going abroad during the pandemic.
The onslaught of professional guidance, opinion and anecdotes can cloud confidence and render one’s judgment jaded. Guidance from the CDC recently halved its recommended duration of isolation for people testing positive for Covid. The agency also updated its advice about masks, deeming cloth versions of the face coverings inferior.      
“You try to keep up with all the information that’s out there,” said Sophanny. “Am I making the right decision for my kids?”
During the Omicron surge, the “right” decision appears more a game of chance than prudence. The McArdles’ vacation seemed to go off without a hitch (or infection), only to have the two youngest family members catch Covid upon their return to school early in January.
They’d been informed via email that someone in close contact with one of their children had tested positive. It was the first week back in school since their holiday vacation, and tests soon confirmed the two siblings had contracted Covid.
Per the new guidelines, the students returned a week later to Brown School after being symptom-free and testing negative.
For all the turmoil associated with students going back to school this year, it seems the consensus has landed on that being the lesser of two challenges. The alternative is a return to full or partial remote learning, which for many parents, teachers and students has been less than ideal.  
“For their mental health,” said Paul Power, “it’s way better to have the kids in classes.”
Power is a science teacher at Kennedy, and has three sons in the Natick school system. He was convalescing at home during the second week of school last month, recovering from the shoulder surgery he’d undergone a few days prior. Power was feeling down about his absence from classes during that pivotal time in the school year, amid the further complications imposed by the pandemic.
“Right back into crazy Covid week,” he said. “I do hate being out. When you’re out, it’s just kind of a mess.”
Understanding and coping with Covid has been like aiming at a moving and morphing target. And all the more so for parents trying to raise and wrangle children. The virus’ shape-shifting strains render policy-making exceptionally challenging. Variant “X” is more or less manageable by this or that vaccine. Variant “Y” spreads more easily but poses less risk to health.
As adjustments of public policy seek to keep pace with the ever-evolving nature of the virus and its spread, that changing playbook can exacerbate a sense of doubt in the public mood. That “decision fatigue” starts to spread.
“I mean, it’s exhausting,” said Power. “It’s exhausting for everyone. It’s all those things that adults deal with, too.”
Yet for all the continued challenges, Power said that teachers and students are growing accustomed to the new mode of school life, and perhaps even the ever-changing dynamics of the past few years. The Plexiglas shields erected to separate people during early pandemic days have largely been removed from schools. Students have become more accepting and adept at wearing masks. Traditional class loads are again becoming the norm.
Natick’s school system, said Power, has been a good partner during the pandemic.  Classes have been fitted with portable air filtration units. A five-pack of high-quality masks was provided to teachers returning from holiday break, though they were asked to make those last for a five-week period. 
“I think Natick’s done more than a lot of communities,” he said.
Despite all the complications, Anna Nolin counts 2021 as a comeback from Covid. She is the town’s Superintendent of Schools.  
“We had an amazing year last year,” she said, pointing to a return to some sense of normalcy, and the suppression of Covid spread within Natick schools.   
The current surge in cases seems a temporary setback, said Nolin - one born of unfortunate timing. The pervasiveness of the new virus variant dovetailed with December vacation, a time when family and friends gathered to celebrate the holidays. Family spread seemed to be higher, said Nolin, and a substantial number of teachers were out sick when school resumed.  
“During this surge it’s been sort of a different game,” she said. “Christmas break was really an incubator for this surge.”
But Nolin added that Natick is well-positioned to weather this latest wave of the pandemic, and emerge in good shape when it eventually subsides.
“We’re a very fortunate district,” she said. “They’re very well-maintained schools. We have a lot going for us in the fight against Covid.”