School is back in session. COVID-19 is spreading. What's a parent to do?
A grieving mother who is still hesitant about vaccines and masks, and a high-risk family that's still locked down as schools reopen ... Schools face the impossible task of satisfying everyone.
Our theme this week is back to school. First up, we have a glimpse into how parents assess whether their kids should go to school, mask up and get vaccinated. Later this week, we’ll look at the broader picture of how school boards became hotbeds for our current culture wars.
Brooke Haven keeps her kids home. They haven’t hung out with friends and family indoors for 18 months. Her 10-year-old son has asthma, and Haven has had heart surgery, making them at high risk for serious complications if they contract COVID-19. She fears what could happen if the kids catch COVID-19 at school or elsewhere and bring it home.
Carrie English lived Haven’s worst fears. She lost her daughter, 12-year-old Elizabeth, to COVID-19 complications in December. But English’s response hasn’t been what others expect: Her son, a freshman in high school, is back in the classroom. Her household hasn’t been vaccinated. They follow masking rules when required, but aren’t clamoring for mandates.
As schools across the state reopen and debate mask and quarantine requirements, parents like Haven and English wrangle with the risks and rewards of returning to school and land at different decisions. Some want their kids back in school because they learn better there and develop socially, and parents can return to work. Those in high-risk families feel disregarded. Some parents vehemently oppose masks, and others want a return to a semblance of normalcy.
Behind the tense school board meetings and political jockeying over masks, quarantines and social distancing lie thousands of families trying to figure out how to do the right thing in a world that changed overnight last March. This phase of the pandemic feels most fraught with anxieties on what that right thing looks like. Vaccination opened doors that the delta variant closed, at least partially.
A person’s response to COVID-19 and the threat it poses is rarely neat. We’re full of “what ifs” and “but thens,” and few feel completely confident that they’re making the exact right choices at any given time.
We’ve all become armchair epidemiologists without the training.
And for those with kids in schools, additional factors complicate the equation. For kids under age 12, the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t an option yet. Mask usage might be spotty. Kids attending school helps with learning and development. Attending school in person affects a parent’s ability to work, in some cases.
Statewide leaders’ inaction has left a hodge-podge of policies that heavily depend on a school’s board makeup.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Arizona’s third wave. Transmission rates among younger children outpaced other age groups for the first time in the pandemic, said Dr. Joe Gerald, a public health professor at the University of Arizona, in his latest COVID-19 update. Resuming school in person while cases are high and vaccination rates are low contributes to an increase in cases in the entire community, he wrote.
“Vaccine and mask mandates along with weekly surveillance testing, adequate ventilation, and physical distancing is required to stave-off a worst-case scenario in schools,” he wrote.
Debates over school public health measures intensify
Just as schools prepared to reopen for the 2021 school year, the fast-moving delta variant threw school boards back into emergency meetings and contentious debates over masking, social distancing and quarantining. Some parents (and rabble-rousers with no ties to these schools whatsoever) showed up to scream at the boards, while others pleaded for mask mandates that would make them comfortable sending kids back to classrooms.
The latest turn put school boards at odds with Gov. Doug Ducey. The state passed a law prohibiting mask mandates in schools, but schools set them anyway, noting the law doesn’t go into effect until late September.
While the mandates drew praise from those seeking more health measures before sending kids back to classrooms, not everyone was pleased.
A teacher sued Phoenix Union High School District after it passed a mandate. The district won, and its victory empowered other school districts to follow suit. Ducey responded with an offer of millions of dollars in funding for schools that didn’t install stringent public health rules.
Parents in high-risk households feel the debate leaves them behind. The common refrain that “kids don’t get sick with COVID-19 like adults do” ignores their reality, they say.
“This part of the pandemic has been the hardest, out of all of it, as a parent, because it feels like right now, everybody's over it. And now, the kids that are high risk are getting forgotten,” Haven said.
It’s true that kids, as a whole, fare far better with COVID-19 than adults do: The disease’s worst outcomes become more likely the older you are and align with underlying health conditions. But kids do still catch COVID-19, some do get quite ill, and some die. In Arizona, 35 of the more than 18,600 deaths from the disease were people under age 20, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services. It’s by far the smallest age category for deaths.
Death isn’t the only concern, though. Some who contract COVID-19 endure lingering symptoms for many months, possibly for years, in what’s known as long COVID.
Some Arizona hospitals are seeing higher numbers of children admitted for COVID-19 treatment in recent weeks. Of the more than 70,000 hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Arizona, about 2,500 were under age 20, ADHS data show.
And because kids under age 12 can’t get vaccinated yet, some families worry their children may bring the virus home and spread it to older family members. Vaccinations for kids who are eligible are lagging: Only about 30% of kids age 12 to 17 have gotten at least one dose, according to the Arizona Republic.
Parents wade through a ton of questions about COVID-19 at schools and how it affects their children in general. A recent episode of the New York Times’ The Daily answered a mailbag of questions that showcased how something relatively straightforward before — deciding to send a kid to school — now involves a much deeper level of second-guessing for parents.
A mother suffers a loss, but doesn’t support mandates
Since 12-year-old Elizabeth English died, her mother has shared her story to help raise awareness of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, a complication of COVID-19 in children. Elizabeth was sent home initially when she got sick; MIS-C wasn’t as well understood then. Since Elizabeth’s death, Carrie English has shared Elizabeth’s story to raise awareness of MIS-C.
You might expect English favors vaccination and mask mandates. In fact, groups have reached out to her, asking to share Elizabeth’s story to show why vaccines and masks are needed. English told them no — it would be hypocritical.
“If Elizabeth was still alive right now, she wouldn't be vaccinated either,” English said.
Only 55% of Arizonans are at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, which means almost half of people aren’t. And while some are vocally, vehemently opposed, others fall into a category more adequately described as hesitant. Others face barriers like transportation and paid time off work. It’ll be necessary to understand the vaccine-hesitant group’s concerns and address them if the United States intends to reach herd immunity.
Carrie isn’t opposed to the vaccine. She wants more answers, more education, more time to understand the long-term effects vaccination might pose. She has family members who have gotten it, and they’re all fine. But she doesn’t live her life worrying about the virus.
“I don't know if I just have a little bit of a different attitude at this point,” English said. “Because without Elizabeth, I'm pretty much one foot in the grave. I'm like, if it's my time, I'm good.”
She doesn’t know what, exactly, will make her comfortable enough to get it, but thinks the vaccine is probably the way out of the pandemic at some point. For now, she’s considering her body’s ability to fight a virus on its own. When Elizabeth got COVID-19, the rest of the family didn’t.
“I feel like your body has a better chance of fighting COVID and learning how to build immunity against it, rather than putting something synthetic into your body,” she said. “But, you know, it could be ignorance. I haven't seen all of the documents backing for or against.”
She feels the masks worn at schools — and often pulled down to talk, eat, play — don’t do as much as people would give them credit for. An N95 mask would, she said, but that’s not what kids are wearing.
Her son, a freshman in high school, takes zinc, vitamin D, garlic and multivitamins each day. His school doesn’t require masks, so he doesn’t wear one, English said.
She thinks the media blows COVID-19 stories out of proportion, which can lead to scare tactics. She knows that’s weird coming from someone like her, who suffered such a loss. Maybe she’s just taking this time to grieve and not deal with the big picture of vaccines and masks, she said.
“I don't know what that magic key is going to be to make us feel comfortable (with the vaccine),” she said.
High-risk households feel isolated, left behind
Brooke Haven is already vaccinated. And it’ll take her kids, aged 8 and 10, being vaccinated for her to feel comfortable sending them to school in person.
A year ago, schools acted swiftly and strongly with measures to control the spread of COVID-19. But this year, Haven has felt like one of few people who still follows strict protocols. She feels alone.
The school her children went to in the Washington Elementary School District didn’t initially offer virtual options this fall. Eventually, the district added them. Her son stayed in the district, doing virtual classes; her daughter transferred out, to an online-only program.
The district passed a mask mandate earlier this month, though it allows parents to opt their kids out. Haven isn’t comfortable with the three feet of distance that schools provide. And she’s not sure what happens once the state law banning mask mandates goes into effect on Sept. 29.
“The numbers are so high right now. I don't even feel like they should be having school in person,” she said.
She’s been told she’s overreacting and being too extreme in her precautions. She went to therapy, and so did her kids, to deal with all the changes and anxieties and others’ responses to those changes.
Some parents she knows sent their kids to school in person to help with the kids’ mental and emotional health. And she’s since heard of COVID-19 cases and bullying of kids wearing masks.
The massive, abrupt changes to her kids’ lives takes a toll on them, for sure, but she’s found other parents willing to have virtual playdates. She’s a stay-at-home mom and can help them with schooling online. They’ve adjusted.
“Both of them said that they would not want to go in school because they would be afraid to bring COVID home,” Haven said.
With Arizona leaders antagonistic toward statewide measures like masks in schools, parents end up mired in constant analysis of each step they make.
School boards struggle to balance competing, vocal constituencies when putting COVID-19 plans in place — all while fighting with the state, if they decide to institute mask mandates.
Some districts have voted against mask mandates to avoid losing money. The Chandler Unified School District, for instance, voted down a mask mandate after learning they’d be leaving millions in state dollars on the table if they approved it.
The inaction trickles downward, into homes where parents stress over the right choices for their kids, themselves and their communities. The stakes have never been so high.