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Jim McDermottAugust 31, 2021
A man fixes a young girl's face maskphoto from iStock

Almost every time I have spoken to my sister Jen in central Wisconsin over the last three months, the same subject has eventually come up: school board meetings about masks.

You’ve probably experienced the same. School board meetings across the country have become seething battle zones of rage and fear, as those who want their children and staff masked and vaccinated contend against those who do not. The Associated Press recently reported on school board members across the country quitting amidst threats and thoughts of suicide.

In my sister’s case, as in many others, the school board delayed its decision about mask wearing until the very last minute. It also reversed course: After saying two weeks ago masks would be encouraged but optional, the board held a 4.5 hour public meeting this week, which ended with the announcement that they would require them.

And then, said my sister, “People flipped out.” Those opposed to masks are now promising boycotts, walkouts and protests in front of the school. Threats being made online suggest even worse. My sister looks on, feeling helpless as she thinks about her three children, two of whom have had to endure this seemingly endless combat for most of high school. “It’s just, when does it end?” she said to me.

“It’s just, when does it end?”

The question is particularly acute for parents of younger children. They have spent most of the last 18 months trying to negotiate the changing needs of their children’s education and well-being while also managing their own jobs and health. And while teenagers and adults have been able to enjoy much greater freedom since getting vaccinated, there is no vaccine yet for children under 12.

I spoke to 10 parents from across the country to hear how they are doing in the midst of it all. While their situations varied greatly—sometimes to the point that it seemed like they lived in different countries—what I found were people wanting to be hopeful, trying to keep perspective and yet also in many cases anxious, frustrated and exhausted by their schools, states, fellow parents and our current reality.

‘We have to be so mindful right now’

As the Delta variant rages, our current reality is worrisome. Los Angeles County announced over 3,100 new cases of Covid in the L.A. County schools last week, most of them isolated cases at 84 different sites. Thousands of school children and staff are already in quarantine in Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi, more than 10,000 in Florida’s Hillsborough County alone. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported on August 19 that the number of children who have tested positive for the virus has quadrupled over the last month to 180,000 the week of August 19. In fact the simulations of a C.D.C.-funded lab predict more than 75 percent of children in elementary schools that do not require masks or regular testing could be infected with Covid within the first three months of school, leading to further illness in their vaccinated parents as wellAsked by The Atlantic Monthly how he felt going into the new school year, the pediatrician Sean O’Leary replied, “Are you allowed to use swear words?”

But in the suburbs of Minneapolis, stay at home dad Scott Seibert is feeling good about the year. Both his children have been vaccinated, their hometown area has a strong vaccination rate and there has been little pushback against the public middle school requiring masks to protect the 11-year-old sixth graders. “There’s like one [opposing] post on Facebook, and most of the comments are about wanting to keep other people safe.”

“I’d say we’re in a pretty ideal situation,” he says.

Meanwhile in central Arkansas, Jenny Wallace, her husband and four children confront the polar opposite of ideal. “Our entire state is in the red zone,” she tells me. “It’s out-of-control growth.” As of August 24 Governor Asa Hutchinson announced that the entire state did not have a single I.C.U. bed available for Covid patients. While none of Ms. Wallace’s family has gotten sick and all are vaccinated, the situation has deeply impacted them.

The Associated Press recently reported on school board members across the country quitting amidst threats and thoughts of suicide.

“My uncle fell off a house a couple weeks ago, broke his arm and probably collapsed a lung. When the ambulance came to get him they said they were going to send him home. There’s no room [at the hospitals],” Ms. Wallace said. Her cousin, Ms. Wallace told me, had to tell her kids to stop doing handsprings in the yard, lest they get injured and have nowhere to go.

“We have to be so mindful right now of everything we do, because we don’t know that someone is going to be there to care for us if something happens to us.”

Despite the surging numbers of sick and dying in the state, Arkansas enacted a law at the end of July preventing state or local governments from enacting mask mandates. A court ruling on a lawsuit arguing that it was unconstitutional to deny mandates in public schools when private schools are allowed to have them has temporarily blocked the ban, allowing each district to decide for itself. Ms. Wallace’s district decided to require masks; another nearby refused to do so. “I don’t know what we would have done if they had not had a mask mandate,” Ms. Wallace said. “I used to teach in the district that did not do the mask mandate. People are devastated. Some have even moved their kids. They’re driving 20-25 minutes to drive their kids to school.”

‘We’re back to March 2020’

A number of the parents I spoke to had stories like this of sudden changes in school policy leading them to wonder whether they would need to move or homeschool their children. In Milwaukee, Wisc., the developmental psychologist Amy Van Hecke is considering such a move for her 11-year-old daughter after she was forced by her public school into a two week quarantine when a school friend got Covid-19, despite having tested negative three times for the virus.

More shocking to Dr. Van Hecke was the school’s unwillingness to provide online options for those two weeks. “There’s no virtual education,” Dr. Van Hecke says. “Milwaukee public schools were virtual all last year until April. But now it’s not allowed.”

“Basically we’re back to March 2020 with worksheets.”

Dr. Van Hecke considers herself a “staunch supporter” of public education, but she wonders whether the Milwaukee school system has the capacity to handle this crisis. “I’m worried they are not going to be able to adjust fast enough,” Dr. Van Hecke states. “These variants are going to keep throwing wrenches in things and we have to find ways to keep going.” The small local Catholic schools, she feels, might prove more “nimble.”

Masks are ‘an absolute nightmare’

Many of the parents I spoke to expressed concern that local and state officials do not seem to show enough concern for the safety or wellbeing of their children. Brandi White, a New Jersey biomedical engineer who used to work in vaccine development and manufacture for Merck, has spent the last year watching her four children struggle with online education and state mask requirements. “My oldest is mildly autistic and needs speech therapy, and my youngest son, my 2 year old twin boy, is also struggling with speech big time.”

For both of them, masks are “an absolute nightmare,” she explains, affecting their speech and social development.

"You need one on one speech therapy with him, and it needs to be without a mask. And this school district won’t give it to me."

For her older son, who was also born with a cleft palate, attempts at online schooling have been equally challenging. His school speech therapist dropped him without explanation as soon as the pandemic began in March 2020. The school required him to be reevaluated before they would assign him a counselor. That process took until Thanksgiving. He got only two sessions before Christmas break. In the spring semester his therapy sessions were constantly cancelled by the school for other things.

“Our doctors saw him in June and said, ‘What’s going on?’” said Ms. White, “His speech hasn’t gotten any better in a year. You need one on one speech therapy with him, and it needs to be without a mask. And this school district won’t give it to me.”

‘I don’t really have any options right now’

In western Massachusetts, Aaron Abdelmaseh and his family spent much of the pandemic taking absolutely every precaution, as his 8-year-old son and one of his 4-year-old twins have asthma issues triggered by colds. “We’ve had EMTs at the house for breathing issues [before], so we take covid very very seriously. [Even now] I haven’t taken the kids grocery shopping, we haven’t taken them to the beach.”

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recently announced a statewide mask mandate in public schools, which will last until October 1. But Mr. Abdelmaseh—who feels like he has had to become an “armchair epidemiologist”—looks at the expanding number of cases in the state and cannot understand the decision to go back to in-person education. “We’re at 33.4 cases per 100,000, which is four times above the 8 cases per 100,000 that the state set at the start of the pandemic as the trigger for going fully remote. The positivity rate is 6.34 percent, which is almost as high as it has ever been. And we’re going to send kids back to school, with twice as many kids in their classrooms [from what was allowed at the end of last year].” Here too, the state is refusing to offer any kind of remote school option.

“It feels like the structures you could count on aren’t there, and I don’t have agency to adjust that,” said Mr. Abdelmaseh. “I don’t really have any options right now. My son literally has no more protection today than he had at the start of the pandemic.”

In the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, Bridget Carberry Montgomery finds herself in a similar position, after Governor Kim Reynolds signed a state law shortly before the end of the last school year preventing any government entity from having a mask mandate. Ms. Montgomery and her husband have three daughters, one of whom is not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

80 percent of the students were in person all year, masked and with no major outbreaks.

The only online schooling option available in the state required sign-up months before the governor announced the new law. “Who would have thought that they would take away something that was working?” Ms. Montgomery said. “Our district was quite successful in mitigation. We had a major surge here in November; the whole district went online for a couple weeks around Thanksgiving.” Otherwise, 80 percent of the students were in person all year, masked and with no major outbreaks.

This year they will have 100 percent of the students in person; no masks will be required. The infection rate in her area is climbing, and a recent state fair brought over one million people to the area. “In my non-medical opinion, we’re ripe for some very bad things to start happening,” said Ms. Montgomery. “We’re not in an all out panic mode here yet, like we’re seeing in some other parts of the country, but there’s no mechanism to keep our kids safe, other than my daughter wearing her mask and hoping that other people wear theirs, including teachers and administrators.”

The thing that puzzles many of these parents is why their states are not allowing different educational options, given the state of the pandemic. Ms. White said: “I’d love to see the option of virtual school for those families who need it, whose children are successful at it, and in-person schooling options for special needs kids, who don’t do well with virtual learning.” Dr. Van Hecke said, “That’s how you lose kids, by not giving them options.”

‘You’re fighting against people instead of against the virus’

While John-Paul Sartre once famously wrote that “Hell is other people,” many parents are finding that Hell is more specifically other parents, especially those commenting on social media. “There are Facebook groups for our area that I was a part of,” says Ms. White. When she talked about her kids’ needs for in-person education and time without masks, people attacked her suitability as a mother. “I was in tears,” she said. “I just want the best for my kids, too.”

“You’re either all for or all against. There is very little middle ground.”

“I like the town we live in,” said Abdelmaseh, “But it’s very clear to me that it isn’t a community. There is no shared sense of needing to do this to keep the most vulnerable among us safe.”

For Ms. Wallace in Arkansas, the further struggle is dealing with the fact that the greatest pushback has come from fellow Christians. “It’s just been the most disappointing thing to me. Everything I’ve been taught my entire life has been about loving your neighbors as ourselves. And God has given us this opportunity to lead the way in and wash one another’s feet. And instead the whole focus is on our rights.”

Ms. Montgomery feels similarly about the Christian parents in her community. “They are the first ones to say you can’t have an abortion or talk about sex ed, but now [that same group is arguing] ‘My body, my choice’ [when it comes to wearing masks].”

“We’ve forgotten how to love and care for each other as a society.”

Even in Los Angeles, where state mandates require masks for everyone in schools and vaccinations for all faculty and staff, Jean Lau finds herself anxious for her 6 and 9-year-old boys. “It’s great that they have all [these rules in place], but the problem is the other parents. Will they send their kids to school with Covid?”

“We’ve forgotten how to love and care for each other as a society.”

“I used to ask, ‘Are their parents home? Are there guns in the house?’” said Ms. Montgomery. “Now it’s whether they are vaccinated.”

“You feel like you’re fighting against people instead of against the virus,” agreed Ms. Wallace.

Dr. Van Hecke shares concerns about how the pandemic is fraying our sense of community. “It’s shaking our confidence in each other.” Still, she tries to ward off the inclination to get wrapped up in resentments. “If you spend a lot of time being angry and judging people, it just takes away from your energy. It saps you.”

“There’s a great Martin Luther King, Jr. quote in our clinic—‘Keep moving forward.’”

I asked Dr. Van Hecke in her experience both as a psychologist and a parent what advice she might give parents today. “I think it’s probably not acknowledged enough that we are all stressed and have been stressed for so long now,” she said. “Give yourself some grace. We’re all just doing the best we can, and none of the options are good.”

The parents I spoke to perceive their children as wavering between being anxious and being thrilled about going back to school. “He’s definitely internalized some of our concerns,” says Mr. Abdelmaseh of his son, “so we started three weeks ago getting him hyped to go back. ‘Isn’t it amazing to go see your friends?’”

Ms. Montgomery has noticed some of her daughters are finding big social situations uncomfortable. “We had our back to school nights last week, and the younger two struggled being around so many people. We talked about it. They don’t want to stay home. So they know they have to fight through those feelings,” she said.

In the East Bay area of Northern California, Kyle Garret’s 7-year-old son is genuinely excited. “Our older son probably hasn’t been this happy since before the pandemic started,” he says. “It’s really great for him to be able to go to school and see his friends and learn from someone other than a face on a computer screen and me.”

As Mr. Garret spoke to me about the area in which he lives, where people are “really diligent” about wearing masks and, in general, he and his family have felt very secure during the pandemic, he stops for a moment to talk to his wife. It turns out that as we are talking the two of them and their two sons are in their car waiting to get tested for Covid-19. There was a breakthrough case in one of the teachers at his son’s school.

Mr. Garret feels pretty confident they will test negative, but the experience has shaken him a little bit. “I probably will be more apprehensive now, honestly. It’s poked a hole in this bubble of safety that was probably not even real to begin with,” he said.

When we finish our conversation 20 minutes later, the line of cars has not moved. They have been waiting one hour and fifteen minutes so far. “I can’t think of a single theme park that I’ve ever sat this long in line for,” Mr. Garrett says, laughing. “And the result here is not remotely close to the happiest place on earth.”

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