"The world at large is forgetting about anyone with kids under 5," one mother, Rachel Lekherzak, said.
Their experiences represent a snapshot of the broader chaos facing the country as Omicron infects hundreds of thousands of people daily, creating major staffing shortages for schools, hospitals, airlines and emergency services.
Their perspectives help illustrate the tricky position that millions of parents are in. All acknowledged the value of in-person education; all also knew the risks that in-person class could present with this wave of cases.
Here is a sample of their stories.
'Mommy, I'm sorry I failed you'
When Jane Peng's 13-year-old daughter spiked a fever and started vomiting Monday, Peng quickly used a home test kit. The result was negative, but there appeared to be a shadow where the line should be, she said.
The eighth grader at Eisenhower Middle/High School in New Berlin, Wisconsin, has been isolating and wearing a KN95 mask at home since then, the same day that class reopened. On Tuesday and Saturday, home tests came back positive, her mother said. Peng asked that her daughter not be named in this story.
Peng scrambled to find her daughter a PCR test Monday, but all the local pharmacies and testing centers she tried didn't have availability until Friday. "I'm angry and frustrated," she said. "I'm almost unable to get my daughter a test at any official sites ... at the time when she got sick."
The family's doctor couldn't see her daughter until Thursday. On Saturday afternoon, her daughter's PCR test results came back positive. Her husband, a healthcare worker, has tested negative with tests at work.
"Mommy, I'm sorry I failed you, that I didn't protect myself, that I got this Covid and I put you and daddy into danger," Peng said her daughter told her, crying.
Peng told her daughter, who has been wearing a KN95 mask to school, it wasn't her fault. "It's our adults' fault. It's the CDC and school district and me, the mother, that we failed you," Peng said.
The timing of her daughter's illness stung. She tested positive one day before the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its recommendations for the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine booster
to include children as young as 12.
Her daughter's school did a good job with Covid-19 safety measures last year with mask mandates, social distancing and glass dividers set up for lunch, she said. Her daughter was struggling with virtual learning, so Peng let her go back to in-person classes in March 2021.
But for this school year, the School District of New Berlin is recommending masks for students and teachers, as opposed to requiring them, according to a May letter
from the superintendent.
CDC guidelines for isolation
changed from 10 days to five days if you do not have symptoms, plus five days of wearing a mask around others.
It makes Peng angry, she said. The school district sent an email to parents on December 30 saying it would adopt the same reduced isolation period, though not the mask requirement.
"This is like drinking the sea water when you are really thirsty, and your children got sick because of this policy change. I blame the CDC and I blame our school district," Peng said. "I want to send this message to a school district -- open your eyes, look at the data, protect our children."
'I feel like I'm endangering them'
Rachel Lekherzak, 40, and her husband decided to hold their 4- and 6-year-old kids back a grade last year, hoping the pandemic would be over by now. The rise of Omicron and decisions made by the Cobb County School District in Georgia have foiled that hope, she said.
"It just feels like a trap," she said. "I feel trapped by it. On one hand, I want my children to have an education. On the other hand, I feel like I'm endangering them by sending them there."
Lekherzak's 6-year-old is in kindergarten and fully vaccinated, but her 4-year-old is in pre-K and is not yet eligible for the shot. School reopened in person on Wednesday. Remote learning is an option in Cobb County, but they would have had to sign up months ago, she said.
"It really is just a series of bad options right now. (People say,) 'You're in a pandemic, what do you expect?' But at some degree it's infuriating," she said.
Lekherzak suspects that the school will be closed by next week due to staff shortages, so she planned to keep her kids home for now to at least keep them from getting sick. Her husband disagrees and wants to send them to class. The situation has caused constant stress, and she was hardly comforted by the knowledge that Covid-19 is generally milder for children.
"There are so many decisions that have been from this pandemic that just puts kids at the short end of the stick. It's like, 'oh they won't get it that bad.' For people who are parents, it doesn't matter how you minimize it, if your child is sick and gasping for air, I'm sorry it's scary," she said. "That's what happens with this virus. That's a normal symptom of a coughing fi