Care and Feeding

Is It Better, During the Pandemic, to Leave a Child in the Car?

I know the risks, but bringing them inside the store is dangerous, too.

Black car parked.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Vladimiroquai/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Click here to read Open Book, a Slate series about the new school year.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Is it acceptable, during a pandemic, to leave a 7-year-old in a locked and properly ventilated car while quickly running into the store? Has the societal wave shifted back to 1970s parenting on this topic?

—Motor Mom in Michigan

Dear MMiM,

I’m not an authority on the relative risks here, but I personally won’t do more than grab curbside pickup or something else that can be completed in fewer than five minutes while my own 2013 model remains in my line of sight and close enough for me to get to her in seconds. And honestly, I still feel like the worst parent on the face of the Earth each time. Obviously bringing your little one inside of a business isn’t ideal right now, but you can do a lot to protect them there; if you leave them in the car and something goes wrong, the dangers are the same as they ever were. Let’s just both agree not to do it anymore.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Our private school has announced that younger kids will go back in person in the fall, while older kids will stay home. Our county has few (and decreasing) cases, and the school has intense protocols and the resources to enforce them (masks, tiny classes, dedicated outdoor spaces, dedicated bathrooms, hand sanitizer stations, etc.). Distance learning in the spring was a complete disaster for us, as with most families. There is an option to keep the younger kids at home. My husband thinks this is the only appropriate choice. Any risk to physical health, no matter how small, is more significant than the benefits of in-person school, he argues. I think our first grader’s mental health will suffer intensely with remote school, and I assume we’ll end up there for some part of the year anyway when cases inevitably spike. None of us have risk factors for the virus, we do not live near any family, we do not see anyone else. She is a social kid who thrives on interaction. She has shriveled in isolation. I feel like we have this intense privilege to have one of the very, very few American kids who might come out of this somewhat unscathed, and he thinks I’m risking her life. Does his irrational fear outweigh mine?

—Split on School

Dear SoS,

Does whose irrational fear outweigh yours? You aren’t the only one who has one, when in the United States right now there are no less than 4.85 million cases, 159,000 confirmed deaths, and good reason to believe that the numbers are, in fact, much higher.

I am reticent to accept that you genuinely believe that your 6-year-old and her friends, hopped up on apple juice and pent-up energy from two lost seasons of school-time folly, will be able to keep their grubby little Pirate’s Booty dust–covered hands to themselves. I am in denial, dare I say, for I refuse to accept that you actually believe in your heart of hearts that people who chew Barbie feet and are still navigating the nuances of an effective post-bathroom wiping and hand-washing regimen are going to prevent the spread of a deadly virus.

Please say “sike.” You do not believe that! You can’t! Please! Not when people in other parts of the world have already demonstrated what happens when schools open before the spread of COVID-19 is under control. The fact that people here just seem to refuse to acknowledge that our survival is interconnected to that of other people—even strangers—both near and far is why many people across the globe look down their noses at America (or rather, it’s one of many very valid reasons; this is just the specific one we are engaging today).

You gotta read the other stuff on Slate dot com, my love. It’s bad outside! How will your child’s mental health be affected if a parent, or a teacher, or a kid from her school dies from COVID? You’ve admitted yourself that you see the current reopening as a temporary one, so what exactly do you think would be happening that would lead your school to go to an all-remote learning model? You’re basically saying you want to send your daughter back until things get bad, which would mean making her vulnerable until things … got bad.

Apologize to your husband, start looking at lap desks and bean bag chairs for your daughter, and get ready for the worst school year of all of our lives.

• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister is getting married in a few weeks, and I am so unbelievably happy for her. However, she is having the wedding in a tourist area where COVID cases have been on the rise since the town reopened. My husband, toddler, and I are all in the wedding party, and our infant daughter was to attend as well. My parents and sister have a laissez-faire attitude toward the pandemic in general and seem to think nothing will happen to them. I, on the other hand, work in health care and am much more aware of the risks. There have been no assurances about masks or social distancing during the ceremony or the reception. I’m scared to attend the wedding and have all but decided that my kids won’t be going. I need to tell my sister sooner than later. Am I being unreasonable here? I feel like everyone just thinks there is no more pandemic.

—Sister of Bride

Dear SoB,

You aren’t being unreasonable. Your sister, her fiancé, and the various others involved in the execution of this wedding are being unreasonable. Is there anything you can do to shut this whole thing down? Maybe some messy Facebook posts or sowing the seeds of doubt in one of the lovebirds’ minds?

You have tried talking to your family about why this gathering is a dangerous and very stupid idea, right? Horrified them with this story about an Indian wedding that ends with the groom himself reportedly dying of COVID? Or this more local tale of a large wedding in Michigan where no less than five cases have been identified? You gotta do and say whatever you can to try and force them to postpone or take the party to Zoom. If that fails, it is your responsibility to keep not just your kids, but your husband and yourself home from what could end up being one of the most tragic events in the history of the town where it takes place. Godspeed.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m dying from fatigue. I have one child, who is 10. I work full time and am a single parent. Kiddo’s dad only gets four hours a week in visitation. I’m a nurse, so work is utterly physically and emotionally exhausting. My problem is that I can’t get enough uninterrupted sleep. My kiddo, for a variety of reasons, sleeps with me, and kicks, snatches covers, and tumbles around like sneakers in the dryer. I end up waking almost every hour from painful kicks, cold, or breath in my face. I go through the day in a stupor, easily irritated and miserable, hating everyone and everything. The merest suggestion of kiddo sleeping in their own room triggers a meltdown of epic proportions, and I feel too beat down to go on. Some days I’m so tired I pray for illness—or death—so I could at least nap alone. What do I do? My support system for child care is limited, I have to work, and there will be no reprieve with the start of school, as it will be virtual. Help.

—Sleepless in Seattle

Dear SiS,

I am so sorry you’re struggling like this, and though I’m sure you know you are one of so very many parents having such an experience right now, it probably does little to help your spirit. You have to figure out a way to sleep at least somewhat comfortably in the short term, as you aren’t going to be able to take care of either of you if you don’t start resting. Have you tried setting up a pallet in your child’s room? Or getting a sleeping bag, a cot, some other spot for one of you to use instead of the shared bed in your room?

You don’t specify the “variety of reasons” for this sleeping arrangement, but whatever they are, sharing the bed is not a long-term option. You either have to get your child on board with sleeping solo, or reimagine the room so that you both have a comfortable place to rest.

Investigate what mental health resources may be available to you from your employer or health insurance. You’ve got a difficult profession and a demanding home life during a global pandemic—you need support now more than ever. (And thinking back to your child’s aversion to sleeping alone, it might be the case that they, too, may benefit from some counseling or some other tools to help them begin to channel the independence required to sleep solo at least more often than not.) Give yourself some grace, don’t feel bad when you have to rely on an “electronic babysitter” such as the TV or a tablet, and carve out as much space for rest as possible. Remember that you will not be able to care for your child if you are not here, so please prioritize yourself and your health right now. You are essential, not just to your patients and to your kid, but to you. You deserve to be here, and you deserve to be rested. Please, please take time to care for you.

— Jamilah

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