Children in the United States are about to commence their second, full Covid school year with as much fear and frustration as their first. As the Delta variant causes cases to surge globally and childhood cases to rise, districts have dropped their precautions, and some parents are frightened, angry and deeply conflicted over how to protect their children.
“I’m terrified to send my son back to school,” Karyn Bishof, a parent and advocate for long-Covid patients in Boca Raton, Fla. said in a phone interview. Bishof’s son is 12. Despite having both doses of the Covid vaccine, he too is afraid of contracting a rare breakthrough infection.
Last fall, in an effort to curb outbreaks and keep school in session, districts around the country implemented mask mandates, regular Covid testing, social distancing and remote learning programs. As summer vacation neared and vaccination rates rose, optimism about the end of the pandemic led some state and local officials to announce that the 2021-22 academic year would return to normal and that many Covid-era policies would expire.
But the situation has changed since school let out, with new cases rising in almost every state. Now, some parents are saying that rolling back the precautions was premature and that the new, lax policies are already dangerously out of date.
What’s different this year?
Bishof chose to keep her son home last year but her district will be changing its remote learning program this year. Instead of learning alongside his in-person classmates, if he wants to remain remote, Bishof’s son will have to enroll in a separate, online program called Florida Virtual, which she said is less rigorous and requires more parental supervision of lessons.
“If I keep him home without the proper type of instruction, he’s going to fall far behind,” she said. “Or [I have to] send him to school in the middle of a pandemic, during the worst surge we’ve seen, with variant that’s affecting children more and is more transmissible.”
Bishof is not the only parent who has to make a difficult choice. Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey said all learning would be in person this year. And the nation’s largest school district, New York City, is also doing away with remote learning, despite recent pushback from some teachers and parents.
And with more students present in the building at once, adequate social distancing will become more difficult, if not impossible. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control reduced its recommended distance between students from six feet to three feet for most age groups.
In this fall’s more crowded classrooms, masking will be a more important barrier to viral transmission. But some governors, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis, are in the process of trying to ban mask mandates in schools, despite the CDC’s recommendation that all students wear them indoors.
“Masks can’t be optional,” Megan Carmilani, a parent and advocate in Charlotte, N.C., said in a phone interview. “If one person is wearing a mask and another isn’t, you’re still at risk.”
Carmilani has a post-viral syndrome with symptoms similar to long Covid. She said that requiring all students to wear masks is a small price to pay to avoid sickening them with a virus like Covid that can cause permanent physical and cognitive disabilities in what scientists estimate to be 10% of infected children — and anywhere from 10 to 30% of adults who are infected.
“Wait until you have to accommodate all these children,” she said. “How many millions of children are going to be affected by the end of the year? You’re potentially disabling [so many] kids just because you won’t put a mask on them in school.”
Conflict among parents
Many people we interviewed said they were frustrated by other parents they see as fighting against basic safety measures like mandatory masking.
“I think everybody kind of wants a return to, quote, ‘normal,’ regardless of whether that’s possible or even in anybody’s best interest right now,” Ric Mandigo, a parent in Elmhurst, Ill. said in a phone interview. “People who don’t want masks at all, because they want everything to go back the way it was, are very vocal about their desires.”
Mandigo said that while a parents’ Facebook group in his district has been a battleground for months, conflict boiled over last week when one father posted an article about Anthony Fauci saying children are ‘more likely’ to contract the Delta variant.
“There are hundreds of comments where you can see the vast difference between anti-maskers versus people who actually want their kids to stay healthy.”
Bishof said that some parents had even verbally harassed her son for wearing a mask while playing in a school soccer game.
“He was getting heckled in the parking lot by a bunch of adults, saying he should be embarrassed for wearing a mask and that Covid was not real,” she said. “It’s not just peer pressure. Adults are doing this.”
She blamed hyperpartisanship for the strife in her state.
“Everything has just been so highly politicized, which turned into misinformation campaigns,” she said.