In early August, Heather Maddox, 33, sent her daughter off to kindergarten. Her local school district in Georgia did not have a mask mandate, but her daughter wore one, as did many of her classmates.
Still, within the first week, five children in her kindergarten class had contracted COVID-19. Maddox’s daughter was one of them.
“We managed so well throughout the past year and a half,” Maddox said. “It feels so unfair to me that she’s paying the price. She’s done everything right. It made me really mad and sad that she’s in this situation, although now I’m at the point where I guess I’ve just kind of accepted it.”
For 18 months, COVID-19 has interrupted education across the United States. As children around the country head back into classrooms — some for the first time since the pandemic began — many families are breathing a collective sigh of relief. The pandemic has taken a profound toll on children’s education and their mental health, with rates of depression and anxiety among those under the age of 18 doubling since the start of the health care crisis.
But with the delta variant tearing through largely unvaccinated communities and health officials sounding alarms over the recent jump in new infections among kids, this is not the start to a new school year that parents had hoped for. And in parts of the country where coronavirus infections are surging and where mask politics have reached new heights, many parents like Maddox feel helpless, resigned to sending their children to schools where they do not feel at all confident that they’ll be kept safe.
“It feels so unfair to me that she’s paying the price. She’s done everything right.”
“It’s absolutely terrible,” said Nicholas, 35, who has an 8-year-old son and asked to use his first name only because of how divisive the topic has become. “My view of parenting is that my first job is to keep him safe ... so why am I sending him to a place where I know he can get COVID much more easily? I still wrestle with that.”
COVID-19 cases are soaring in his home state of Texas, and multiple areas now have zero ICU beds available, a sign of just how dire the situation there has become. But aside from spacing children out slightly in the cafeteria at lunchtime, his son’s school district is not taking any other preventive steps.
“Personally, I’ve dealt with a lot of guilt — mixed with other things,” Nicholas said. “They’re not requiring masks. They’re not separating desks. Nothing. They’re acting like, ‘Hey, COVID’s over!’ But that’s obviously not the case.”
Nicholas would have strongly considered keeping his son home for remote learning again this year had the option been available to him, but it wasn’t. So instead, he’s asked his son to stay masked, knowing the level of protection he’s getting is likely less than what he’d get if everyone wore face coverings.
And in the absence of broader policy measures, parents are taking comfort in finding others around them who also believe their schools and communities could more.
“We are fortunate that we do not feel alone in this. While my husband comes from a conservative family, his parents believe that COVID is real and is a problem. They believe in masks and the vaccine,” said Kate Poppe, a 42-year-old mom of two middle schoolers in Iowa whose husband is immunocompromised. “My family is also very supportive. We’ve formed friendships with others that feel the same as we do, and that has really helped. I personally have a Facebook chat group with other mothers in town who share my feelings.”
Members of the Facebook group bounce ideas off each other about how they can protect themselves and their kids, but it feels like an uphill battle.
“Nobody in the community is wearing masks,” said Poppe, calling it a “free-for-all.” She added that her children’s school district does not require students or school staff to quarantine if they’ve been exposed or infected.
But even for parents with kids in schools or school districts that are taking preventive steps like requiring masks, there is a sense of frustration and anger that yet another school year is starting during a surge in cases. Parents and children who have done everything right — stayed home, worn masks, gotten vaccinated — are losing their patience.
“My view of parenting is that my first job is to keep him safe ... so why am I sending him to a place where I know he can get COVID much more easily?”
“I feel angry because I feel like all of this could have been nipped in the bud had everyone decided to go along with a plan of masking and vaccinations,” said Nicole, 36, a mom of three in Texas. She also asked to use her first name only, noting that there are “family lines being drawn” over mask advisories.
Nicole’s local school district does have a mask mandate, in defiance of the state’s governor. (And many individual schools, school districts and teachers do, in fact, want mask mandates but are unable to implement them because of statewide bans.) Still, the skepticism in her community runs deep. At the end of the last school year, Nicole sent her daughter into the classroom for in-person learning, where she was one of only two children wearing a face mask. Her daughter’s teacher, who Nicole says has shared her anti-masking views on social media, told her she didn’t have to wear it.
“I feel very strongly that we should be listening to our pediatricians and infectious disease experts in this matter and not politicians,” Nicole said.
As the school year gets underway, many parents are simply taking it one day or one week at a time — particularly since it seems like school and local policies swerve almost as often as the pandemic itself. They try to remain hopeful that cases will go down, that vaccines will become available to younger students and that schools will simply follow the advice of health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But it often feels too little, too late. After Maddox’s daughter and four of her fellow classmates came down with COVID-19, the school and her classroom initially remained open, Maddox said. Her 5-year-old passed the coronavirus on to her toddler, though thankfully both cases have been mild. After several weeks, the school finally decided to quarantine her daughter’s class, which parents were told was “according to district protocol” — though Maddox added that at this point, “no one knows what that means exactly.”
“Big surprise that after taking zero precautions to prevent spread, they now have to be reactive and go virtual last minute — after two weeks in school,” Maddox said. “I am glad to see some sort of action, but it feels a little late now.”