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On a Friday afternoon, just shy of three weeks into the school year, I waited in the schoolyard for my four and six-year-olds, and smiled under my mask as they came flying out of the building, into my arms. As we walked away, holding hands, I heard a loud sniff to my right. Then another one. My heart jumped into my throat. Shit. We have a runny nose.

These days, a runny nose means one of two things. My kid could stay home from school for fourteen days (after having been out of school for six months), or he could go for a COVID test. Both options were unpalatable, but I immediately knew how I’d be spending this lovely, unseasonably warm fall weekend. And it certainly wouldn’t be apple picking.

As soon as we were far enough away from the school, I peeled the saturated masks off my kids. I inspected each child closely. My daughter appeared OK, but my son’s nose, which he wiped on my shirt, was running like a leaky faucet.

“Has your nose been running all day?” I questioned.

“Just since lunchtime, I think,” he replied.

“Did your teacher notice?”

“Mummy! How could she see? I wear a mask all day!”

My kids spent the drive home making bad, school-aged runny-nose jokes (“Is your nose running? Then you’d better go catch it!) while I was silently panicking. Every fact and anecdote I’d heard about the testing process in my city bounced around my head.  One friend said she’d gone to a drive-through test centre—her five-year old also had a runny nose—and had waited more than six hours. Another friend’s 18-month-old had a slight fever, so off they went, and after the test, her child kept pointing to his nose, whimpering, “nose, nose.”

After what felt like an hour (only nine minutes or so), I pulled into the driveway, sent the kids inside, and called school. I’d heard of a possible wait-and-see approach for runny noses and COVID-19, but nope—our school policies clearly state that kids with any of the long list of symptoms need a negative COVID test before returning to school.

Panic stage two set in as I tried to figure out how to avoid the long lineups at testing centres. The internet suggested I might be able to book an appointment. I checked one of Toronto’s big hospitals but the preregistration was full. I tried a different hospital’s call ahead number —it was closed until Monday. I googled a third hospital’s online portal: One time slot left for Sunday! Click, click, click. Bingo. COVID test booked for Sunday at 4 p.m. I took a breath. At least we could avoid an hours-long line.

That night, my husband and I decided that I would be the one to take my son for the test—since we were able to get an appointment, I didn’t have to worry about being away from my nursing infant for too long, and my son, who needed to be pinned down by four people when my husband took him for stitches, wants mummy for all things medical or scary.

Panic stage three started very early the next morning. As someone who hasn’t worked up the courage to go to Costco or Loblaws, whose postpartum appointment was virtual, and who was too apprehensive, even this summer when coronavirus numbers were low, to go for much-needed pelvic floor physio, I was now going to have to suck it up and go to a COVID test centre and be in the presence of several potentially COVID-positive people in line.

The panic was exacerbated by the fact that my son woke up with a low grade fever. This meant that the upcoming COVID test was absolutely necessary. I spent the remainder of Saturday and Sunday trying to keep the two big kids from licking each other or the baby, with limited success. When it was time to go, I put my son in the van and made sure that I had packed water, a treat for afterwards, and his Winnie the Pooh mask (the only one he wears willingly).

There are so many things about how COVID has been handled in Ontario that have made me frustrated to the point of tears, flabbergasted and, quite frankly, enraged at the lack of prioritizing the needs of children, families and working moms, every step of the way. The approach to  testing, I now know, is no different. It’s a Catch-22: Kids can’t go back to school without a negative test, but families need to jump through so many hoops just to get their kids tested—and then miss several days of work to stay home with their kids, waiting for results that arrive, in many cases, long after the runny noses have disappeared.

Even with an appointment, I waited in a standing line, with a small child, for over an hour. When a security guard handed me disposable masks for me and my son and said that we needed to put them on instead of the ones we were wearing, my son burst into tears and tried to run away, directly into oncoming traffic (the disposable masks have ear loops, which bother him, and they don’t have Winnie the Pooh, which makes him feel safe). When we arrived at the front of the line, our 4 p.m. appointment time had long passed and it was close to 5. I knew the baby would be getting hungry and I silently prayed that he would take a bottle from my husband. More acutely, though, my son’s patience had long since waned and he was starting to get scared.

We walked in the door, washed our hands and registered, hoping for the new saliva test. I was told that the results from the saliva test will take a week, so that wasn’t going to work. My heart sank—spitting in a cup would be easy; the nasal swab would cause a six-year-old Armageddon. I asked if I could get tested first, to show him that it would be no big deal, but since I didn’t have any symptoms, the new regulations just put in place meant I didn’t qualify for a test.

We were sent into the testing room, where my son promptly hid under a chair. After much unsuccessful coaxing, and a little chair lifting, I physically removed him from the floor, put him in my lap and tried to reason with him. It was like trying to reason with a spooked horse. He broke free and made a beeline for the door, bucking and jumping, where a clever nurse blocked his way. A second nurse entered the scene and talked him down, promising that she wouldn’t hurt him. Then she showed him the nasal swab. He lunged at the doorknob. This back and forth went on for another few minutes until I pulled out my phone; the time had come for a bribe. I googled the name of a toy I knew he would love, showed him pictures and told him that if he sat still for the “nose tickle,” he could click the orange “buy it now” button right afterwards. He sat on my lap, holding my phone, and I braced myself for another escape attempt as the nurse swabbed him. He squirmed and batted at her arm, but this time, I was quicker and I held onto him as she finished the swab.

Muttering thank yous and apologies, we left quickly and walked to the car. We removed our masks, washed our hands and ate Oreos together in the back seat.

There has got to be a better way to do this. I can’t run to a test centre every time my child has a mild illness like a runny nose—with three kids at home, two school-aged, we’ll be waiting in test centre lines almost weekly. And, despite preparing him in an age appropriate way, now that the first experience was so traumatic for my son, I fear that he will be spending a lot of time home from school this fall and winter.

My four-year-old woke up the next day, her nose now runny. This time, the prospect of just keeping her home for two weeks somehow didn’t seem so bad, given the alternative. I can’t help but be reminded in all of this that, time and time again throughout the pandemic, the choices made by our government have failed families with young children. And I now find myself worrying more about how testing practices are impacting children, their ability to go to school with any consistency, and the potential repeated exposures they might possibly endure in long lines or without more testing centres devoted specifically to families with kids.

British Columbia has recently removed runny noses from its list of COVID symptoms, and there have been some rumblings that Ontario may do the same. In an attempt to mitigate the long lines for testing, Ontario has also just opened asymptomatic testing at pharmacies—but you can’t go to a pharmacy for a test if you have a runny nose, so off we all go to overflowing test centres. The bottom line is that if we are going to keep kids in school, we need a more functional option for testing kids for COVID.

And now that it is clear that several provinces in Canada have entered the second wave, which was clearly inevitable due to the decisions surrounding reopenings, I feel that we will once again be disappointed by the choices that are being made in the name of protecting the economy. I can’t help but think that if we weren’t so quick to open indoor establishments, that test centres wouldn’t be overflowing with people, and schools, working families, and their children might have had a fighting chance this fall.

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