Swine Flu Hits the Burbs

The thin line between panic and prudence.

I just happened to check my Blackberry this morning while dropping off my son Noah at school. There, in my inbox, was an "urgent" message from the principal that had been sent out sometime during the night: A kindergartner in the school had a confirmed diagnosis of swine flu.

I quickly looked up from my phone, catching a glimpse of Noah as he headed toward the cozy brick building. I thought for a second about dashing from the car and pulling him back.. But before I could manage to undo my seatbelt, Noah slipped out of sight through the big red front doors.

I turned my attention back to the principal’s email. There was plenty of reassurance: The child with H1N1 had recovered and was, in fact, returning to school today. He had been out of school since two days before Memorial Day and there have been no other children thus far reported with symptoms. Crews had descended upon the school overnight and scoured away the germs. Attendance records for the month had been carefully evaluated and no spikes in absences had been found.

Still sitting in the car, I made some phone rounds, guauging what like-minded moms were thinking. I moved on to my gym and empanelled other moms from the school. And I felt better: We all agreed there was no need to panic. We’d keep the kids in school, buy lots of Purell, and tell them not to share pencils or food.

Then I called my husband. "Take him out NOW. This is nothing to fool around about!" he barked into the phone. as he sat on a morning train coming home from Boston. Somehow his remote insistence pushed me in the other direction. Somehow, I wanted to resist his panic and explain why I and the other moms in the trenches weren’t moving so fast. As a longtime parent at the school—and someone known to be a health reporter—I for some reason felt a responsibility not to panic. Not to contribute to a potentially unnecessary unravelling of our tidy day to day life here in Montclair.

I did what I thought was sane. I drove to the school to suss out the scene. Poor Betsy in the office was juggling phones, fumbling with a list of perhaps 50 names of children who wouldn’t be coming into school. I assured her I wouldn’t be adding to her list or otherwise complicating her day. I wandered upstairs to the nurse. "Let me put it this way," she said. "I know the parents of the kids who are being kept home and it doesn’t suprise me at all." For some reason, I was all to eager to convince her I wasn’t one of the crazies. I told her I was only there to gather ammunition so I could calm my husband down.

I came home and, as water boiled for tea, tried to figure out why I was resisting. Why I wasn’t simply playing it safe. What was the downside anyway? A few days of missed school at the end of fourth grade? Was I being macho? It’s not as though playing it safe required some dramatic measure….like when we nearly moved to Tennessee after 9/11. Was I doing the mature thing or was I sticking my head in the sand?

Minutes after I settled at my desk with my tea, my husband arrived at the house, marched up to my office and asked why Noah wasn’t home. I went to defend my decision but came up mute. How was I to know how serious this is or how things will turn out? My girlfriend Nancy calls it Jacuzzi rules: If someone in the Jacuzzi thinks having the bubbles on is annoying, the bubbles get turned off. In this case, I realized, if keeping Noah in school made one parent unhappy, it was reason enough to pull him out.

I swiveled in my seat. Told Paul I didn’t know if I agreed but that it would be okay with me if he wanted Noah home…...As long as he went and got him. Which he did. Noah is is mine for the day. Paul, of course, promptly left for his office in New York.  It’ll be interesting to see how this all turns out. And I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

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