By Martha Sanchez
Briana Mohan sat alone at home, worried about her sick son, again.
A mysterious illness had put him in the hospital. His sick days kept piling up.
“None of this is sustainable,” Mohan said.
It is not the same life or death virus that closed nearly everything three years ago. It is not the same threat that forced children home from school. But after a long, grim pandemic, Mohan still feels it: despair.
Her son cannot keep food down. Doctors say it is a post-viral illness caused by the flu, a stomach virus, or COVID-19 — all infections that he endured in the past six months. And normal, if this is it, means schools like her son’s are facing chronic teacher shortages, plummeting test scores and students struggling to adjust to life back in classrooms.
“We kind of go back and forth between ‘This is horrible,’ and ‘No, it’s ok,’” Mohan said, but her son, 9, is falling behind, missing friends and spending weeks at home.
“Man,” Mohan said this fall. “This whole thing feels very familiar.”
On a quiet morning last month, Mohan remembered the night she and her children laid on the cold cement in their New Orleans backyard, looking at the stars.
It was the depth of the COVID-19 lockdown. The family was bored. Schools were empty. There was nothing for her kids to do, so they found themselves playing basketball, badminton, birdwatching, and on this particular evening, staring at the heavens.
“The big dipper is right over our house,” Mohan said.
To her, that moment was a gift amid chaos. Now, it is one of the few memories that stand out.
The months dragged on. The cases rose. And the kids stayed home. “All day, every day,” Mohan said. “Never mind us trying to do our own work, or what’s happening and deal with being scared we’re all going to die tomorrow. They need to have some kind of interaction and some kind of learning.”
She resolved to push her son and daughter through the school year, whatever it took. She tried to recruit a teacher to meet neighborhood kids outdoors, but that effort failed, and the New Orleans charter school system quickly began to teach students online. Her children logged on for school each day on separate computers in separate rooms and Mohan and her husband tried to keep watch.
Her daughter, 13 now, struggled through online school. But the family recently moved to Houston, where her daughter is a “full-on teenager,” recently elected to student council and boasting a solid report card.
Her son stayed focused in online class. Now he has a new and evasive habit.
“If I break my arm and it’s my right arm and I can’t write, do I get to not go to school?”
“No, you still have to go,” Mohan said.
“If I die, do I get to not go to school?”
“No, dead kids still go to school too,” Mohan said.
But more and more now, he has stayed home and missed extracurriculars.
Last fall, his New Orleans school gave students a choice: return in person or continue online. Mohan’s family picked the latter. That proved difficult – the online courses were entirely separate from students who returned to the classroom.
“For the kids who were still online, who were not as many, the quality of the instruction and attention was just horrible,” Mohan said. “It kind of felt like you’re getting punished or pressured to come back in person.”
She never wanted to blame teachers. They were deeply burdened themselves, Mohan said, and had little support when the pandemic upended their careers.
“There were just a lot of things that really did not go well,” she said.
If a child finished out first grade virtually, and then did the majority of second grade virtually, not only did it put more onus on the adults in that household, or the older children in the household, to assist with reading and math skills, but also limited social interaction for those children, so even if they were able to keep up with their phonemic awareness, and their one to one correspondence, and all of the things that we’re supposed to be doing in second grade, when they got to third grade, and so being back in person, and they sort of had to learn once again how to be in a classroom and how to leave a school and all of those things sucked up some executive functioning that should be used towards learning … They lost some time in social development that they had to make up.
– Kathleen Whalen, who spent 30 years as a teacher and student social worker in New Orleans, on how the pandemic held that city’s children behind.
In Houston, the end felt so close she could almost grasp it.
Cases dropped. Vaccination rates improved. The kids went back to school. They even started social activities – swimming, dance classes and piano lessons.
“We’re really liking the city,” Mohan said. “And we’ve made some good friends.”
She is looking for a new job. In New Orleans, she worked as a career advisor for graduate students at Tulane University. It was a role she feared she would have to give up when the university returned to class and urged staff to do the same.
Before vaccines rolled out, Mohan and her husband, also a Tulane employee, made a pact: if they were pressured to return, they would resign.
“It was like, man, we have sacrificed a lot and worked really hard to try to get to even what feels like this very precarious point,” Mohan said.
They both kept their jobs, but this summer her husband started a new role in Houston, and Mohan is deep in her own search.
“I don’t have the time and energy to do it,” she said, because her son’s illness takes up much of her week. In a new world of remote work, she no longer wants a job that would ask her to come to an office every day. And she wants to make sure she can keep caring for her son.
“It’s far from ideal,” she said. But “It’s better than not being able to work at all.”
Mothers probably took the brunt of this, and so we saw a decline in labor force participation especially for women and children, not surprisingly, during the pandemic, and that could throw up their careers … It’s something that can be permanent. Lost promotions. And when you exit the labor force, getting back in, it’s harder and you usually do drop down a notch.
– Douglas Harris, an economist at Tulane University, on how the pandemic posed challenges for mothers in the workforce.
So much of life now feels like give and take. Her daughter is thriving. Back to school meant back to normal. Until it didn’t.
That familiar fall routine for millions of American children was transformed by the pandemic. “This is part of it,” Mohan said of her son’s illness, and that meant as life returned to normal across the country there were still kids like him – kids who wear a mask to school but whose symptoms are relentless.
“He’s pretty frustrated and miserable,” Mohan said. “He is hungry all the time.”
In the face of all that worry, Mohan tries her best to stay positive.
At least we get to spend more time together, she tells herself.
At least we have practiced empathy.
At least we could do online school.
For others, this is normal. Mask mandates are over. Words like Delta and Omicron are distant memories. Inflation and politics are the new worries, overshadowing headlines that say hospital visits from the flu have reached their highest rates in a decade.
Or that standardized math scores have dropped in almost every state.
Or that one in three Louisiana third graders can no longer read at grade level.
“Appalling and unacceptable,” one education official had called it.
For Mohan, it was part of life.
Children who used to be actively engaged in sports may now be barely able to make it down the street before having to take a break … Parents should be on the lookout for any cardiac symptoms, like feeling like the heart is beating more rapidly than usual, unusual shortness of breath after minimal activity, or feeling like you’ll pass out or lose consciousness. Parents should be mindful of the influence of stress on children after COVID … For example, children who haven’t been able to taste for months feel stressed every time they eat because they can’t enjoy the food that they used to love … It is also worth noting that many children have lost a family member or someone important to them in the last few years. A child’s mental health can be greatly affected by this kind of loss … are a few of the warnings Unicef gave parents as reports of long-term COVID-19 increased this fall.
Mohan’s son, wearing pajamas and still half-asleep, climbed onto his mother’s lap. It was a Thursday, but he was home, shaking off another recent illness and listening to his mother talk of the ways the pandemic brought her family closer together, her hope that shared isolation taught her children compassion but the worry that grows each day now because her son is weary, and she is not sure what to do next.
She tries to be resilient and teach her children the same.
The lesson of the pandemic, Mohan said, is that sometimes the bottom falls out. Strength lies in moving forward.
“But we’re not in the pandemic anymore,” her son said, softly.