Was ever a snow day more blessed, more longed-for, than this one?
What a joy it was to wake on Friday morning to an ice-covered world. We got our robocall canceling school on Thursday afternoon. Our superintendent was positively gleeful, like a 10-year-old sledding enthusiast spared a dreaded quiz. She wasn’t the only one.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to call a snow day,” said Steve Zrike, who runs Salem’s public schools.
The first four days of Year Omicron were a mess in Salem and everywhere else — the worst since the pandemic began, and that’s saying something. All of those careful plans to protect kids and educators from the virus seemed to fail, as schools buckled under the weight of the COVID surge. A steady parade of sick kids dragged themselves into nurses’ offices for rapid tests that proved what was already painfully obvious. Those nurses — those amazing, overworked, exhausted nurses — then threw themselves into as much student-testing, parent-advising and contact-tracing as they could manage before the next unfortunate kid walked through the door.
Educators also went down — so many, that some schools had to close for lack of staffing. Parents, accustomed to the misery of trying to hold down their jobs in a pandemic, scrambled yet again — to track down COVID tests, line up child care, keep sick kids comfortable and away from others.
The virus found my son, too. He’s a very careful kid, vaccinated, and happy to wear a mask all the time. He got it anyway. He woke with a sore throat on Wednesday but was otherwise fine. That evening, we gave him a rapid test, sure it would be negative, and he’d be good the next day. The odious second line came up. The first 24 hours after that were scary: He was sick enough to make us worry his case might not be mild, and to be angry that it had come to this at all, given how long the vaccines have been widely available. But he’s on the upswing now. And he’ll have one less day of school work to make up, thanks to the glorious snow.
In Salem, a district with 4,000 students, 120 kids and 25 staff tested positive last week. Educators ran themselves ragged trying to make up for the staffing shortfalls.
“It has been organized pandemonium,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll.
But Lord, the poor nurses. After battling on the front lines of the pandemic for two years, last week thrust them into a new and even more brutal campaign.
“It has been exponentially different this week,” said Jane Morrissey, a nurse at the Collins Middle School. She and her colleague Andrea Wigozki are overseeing the school’s rapid testing program, trying to catch positive cases and send kids home, track down their close contacts for testing, advise parents and teachers, and log it all. That means arriving at school each day long before classes start, and leaving at six or seven in the evening. She is beyond exhausted, she said, “not available to anyone in my home any more.”
“It’s not what we signed up for,” said Morrissey, who became a school nurse after many intense years in an emergency room. “I guess it’s just a product of the world we’re in.”
The world we’re in: Just 64 percent of Salem’s eligible student population is vaccinated. Morrissey says it’s closer to 50 percent in her school. The nurse got COVID in October, then pneumonia, and she was out for five weeks. Like so many other nurses, she’s frustrated that so many seem unwilling to take COVID seriously at all, even now.
“When I speak to families as respectfully as I can about the vaccine, I’m astounded at the resistance,” she said. “Every day we are dealing with families who think we made up the rules and are overreacting.”
It’s a good day when she doesn’t cry, she said. She’s not sure how much longer she can do the job.
“It’s a real crisis of faith for me,” she said.
If anybody deserved this snow day, it’s Morrissey and school nurses like her. But at this point, shouldn’t we be able to offer more by way of relief than a storm?