Sep 1, 2021 - Politics & Policy

First person: Virus protocols add hours to some school pickups

Parents wait in line to pick up preschoolers from a New Mexico school with the Sandia Mountains in the background.

Parents wait in line to pick up preschoolers from a New Mexico school under strict and lengthy COVID-19 protocols. Photo: Russell Contreras/Axios

Schools restarting across the U.S. are juggling mask mandates and COVID-19 testing requirements. But in my daughters' first three weeks back, I've become familiar with another headache: the three hours it now takes each day for drop-offs and pickups.

Why it matters: Restrictions on how students enter and leave campuses are forcing parents to plan how to navigate long car lines — and often maskless crowds.

  • In line, parents hold meetings on Zoom in their cars. Those who have to get back to restaurant jobs or other service or shift work look nervously at the time.

Details: My daughters attend two different schools in New Mexico that require commutes of a total of 65 miles every day for drop off and pickup.

  • Ava, 7, attends a new elementary school in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, where parents aren't allowed past the gate because of virus restrictions. You can pick up via a car or stand in the hot desert to wait for a child to walk out.
  • Elena, 4, attends a public preschool in Bernalillo, New Mexico, that only allows parents to drop off and pick up children in their cars under strict rules. IDs are checked. Teachers use walkie-talkies to radio that a parent has arrived.
  • Mom does the mornings. I do the afternoons. Each trip takes at least 1.5 hours — longer on days when there are accidents or road work.

The reality: Commutes and pick up can take longer in other parts of New Mexico, especially on the Navajo Nation, where students sometimes live 45 miles or further from schools.

  • But friends and family in Los Angeles and Houston are telling me their daily school routines can take two hours each trip.

My tricks: To avoid the long car line at the Rio Rancho school, which can grow to more than a quarter of a mile, I park on a dirt road near the school and walk Ava to school or wait for her outside the gate.

  • Coyotes sometimes dot the landscape, staring down from afar the crowds who have scared away their prey.
  • On our walk, we must pass maskless parents who defiantly stroll to the gate as if daring someone to challenge them about their decision not to take this basic precaution. Where we live, you also have to keep an eye on the ground for snakes.
  • At the preschool, I arrive at 1:50pm to get a spot for a 2:25pm pick-up. If I arrive later, I'll be in the back of the line and may not get my daughter until after 3pm I now have a pass that allows staff to forgo the ID check.
Parents wait in the hot New Mexico desert to pick up elementary school students amid COVID-19 restrictions.
Parents wait for students at a Rio Rancho, N.M., elementary. Photo: Russell Contreras/Axios

Yes, but: After the first week of school for Ava, she started coughing and suffering from a runny nose. Elena also began coughing. I got body aches and mom coughed.

  • Schools required COVID-19 tests or 10 days of quarantine before returning, which meant Elena, whose school started later, would miss her first day.
  • Mom and I are vaccinated. The children's age groups are not yet authorized for the shots.
  • Tests came back negative, but Elena, with no interaction with anyone besides us yet, got an ear infection. She'd miss a week.

As the new school year began across New Mexico, there was a school shooting at Washington Middle School, also known as La Washa, in Albuquerque. Bennie Hargrove, a 13-year-old, was killed after trying to stop the alleged shooter, also a student, from bullying a friend, investigators said.

  • Parents waiting for children in our elementary school parking lot checked our phones for updates and looked toward Albuquerque, where a rainstorm brewed. "Maybe we're going back to normal," one parent told another. She hugged her daughter as soon as she saw her. I hugged mine, too.
A rain cloud sets over Albuquerque, N.M., as viewed from a Rio Rancho elementary school with a school bus parked.
A rainstorm is seen from a Rio Rancho, N.M., elementary over Albuquerque on the day of a school shooting. Photo: Russell Contreras/Axios

What's next: Classroom birthdays this year can still be celebrated — as long as the kids sing through their masks. Cakes are banned but students can bring packages of goldfish, bags of M&Ms or other wrapped treats that can be served individually.

  • Most afternoon programs are on hiatus and open houses are virtual.
  • On weekends, to stay calm, we go on hikes and visit New Mexico sites where disease once nearly wiped out Indigenous populations who proudly say today, "We're still here."

Arriving early one day for elementary school pickup, I took a detour to look out at the empty desert mesa. A coyote roamed in the distance and as our eyes met, I could have sworn he was wondering the same thing I was: When will this all be over?

A mom walks with her daughters, 7 ands 4, in the Jemez Historial Site in Jemez Springs, N.M., with clouds in the background.
A hike in Jemez Historic Monument in Jemez Springs, N.M. Photo: Russell Contreras/Axios
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