Socially distanced drinks and long walks with her friends helped Gladwyne mom Robyn Ungar get through the summer.
But the fall is looking more fraught. While Ungar’s son logs into school from home, other kids have gone back to in-person classes. Many women in her social circle have children in private school with modified in-person schedules, others have kids in day care; others, still, are more lax about playdates and parties. And, like anyone out and about in the world right now, they’re bringing home an increased risk of COVID-19.
Overnight, Ungar’s socializing got tricky.
“It’s tough,” says Ungar, 40. “But I’m going with my gut. Some of my girlfriends I know I can’t hang out with because I’m uncomfortable with the level of exposure they have right now. I have to do what’s best for my family. But I miss them. ... I miss the adult interaction."
Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, we find ourselves increasingly in need of social interaction. But the quarantine safety bubbles we built for our families during the summer months are disintegrating as more and more of us are venturing out every day.
For those whose kids are in some kind of physical school, how are we supposed to understand the risk? We don’t want to isolate our friends, or make them feel bad for sending their children out to school. Still, are families who we enjoyed playdates and social-distanced gatherings with in the summer relegated to just Zoom and FaceTime buddies until the next vacation?
Not necessarily, says Aimee J. Palumbo, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Temple University College of Public Health. At this point in our collective coronavirus journey, it’s unreasonable to think that anyone’s risk will be zero, Palumbo said. “That’s not practical for the long term,” Palumbo said. Also, at a time when we are all more than a little bit down in the dumps, we don’t want to isolate or punish parents based on how they decide to educate their kids. But, Palumbo added, it’s important that we continue to take precautions and understand the risks we’re taking.
Here’s how to think about the risks and decide how to safely socialize now that school is in session.
How many cases are there in the community?
Keep your fear in context by considering the rate of community spread. This is very important, said Dr. Christina Johns, a pediatrician and senior medical adviser for PM Pediatrics, a virtual urgent care group that specializes in the health of children.
The rate of community spread looks at how many people have tested positive for the coronavirus in a particular community. The more common the infection is in your community, the higher the likelihood that you could contract the virus. If your rate of community spread is low, you might feel comfortable meeting up with your buds for outdoor dinners.
Still, Johns says, it’s important that you continue to follow the social-distancing, masking, and hand-hygiene guidelines, and make sure your kids do, too. Take note of the rate of community spread in the neighborhood where your child’s school is located, Palumbo said. “What’s happening in the surrounding community impacts the level of risk in the school,” Palumbo said. And that could very well impact your decision.
If you’re worried: Be extra careful. Socialize outdoors; be diligent about staying six feet apart and wearing masks as much as you can.
» READ MORE: Coronavirus: Tracking The Spread
Consider your own household
Are you a multigenerational family? Is there someone in your household who has a compromised immune system? If you, or someone you see regularly is high-risk, you need to be more careful and conservative in the risks you take. You have to really consider if it’s worth making your elderly mother vulnerable to potential exposure, Johns said. (Remember many children who test positive for coronavirus are asymptomatic.)
If you’re worried: Continue socializing outside for as long as the weather will allow, Johns says. And be extra aware of when you’ve seen people, and wait two weeks before spending time with anyone who’s more vulnerable.
Ask questions, and be honest
Communicate with your friend. This is probably the most important piece of the puzzle. You have to be comfortable asking what your friend — and her family — have been up to in the last two weeks. Have they visited states or cities with high community spread? Have they been to indoor events? Have they gone to sleepovers with kids that you don’t know? This may be feel awkward but it’s all information you need to make a decision that’s safe for you and your family, Palumbo said.
So, what do you do if their answer leaves you feeling uncomfortable? “It’s hard because I feel very judgmental, but I just politely decline,” Ungar said. “This new normal has changed the closeness of certain friendships. It’s hard. And it’s weird putting my friends in categories. Like there are some I would do indoor dining with but others who I will only continue to meet outside. But I have to be smart."
If you’re worried: Talk it out. Now is a time to be understanding with each other, and try not to judge your friends, or yourself. Lean on your friendships as you try to figure out what’s right for you.
Don’t isolate your friends, but don’t neglect yourself, either
Remember we are all under a lot of stress, and a stress reliever is communing with friends — in person. “As a pediatrician I say to parents, you can’t be a good parent and take care of your child if you aren’t taking care of yourself,” Johns says.
Friendships are part of self-care, and there are ways to be there for each other, even if how that works has to change. “You don’t want to lose friendships during these trying times,” Johns says.
If you’re worried: Find ways to be supportive, even if you’re not comfortable hanging out in person. Your parent friends probably need that right now.