Vaccines are there. The school is open. Some parents are still tormenting themselves
PHOENIX >> All five daughters of Amber Cessac between the ages of 4 and 10 tested positive for COVID-19 for eight days during the school year.
Having them all sick at the same time and worrying about long-term effects as other parents in their school and even their own mother downplayed the virus “something broke inside me,” Cessac said.
“The fear and stress were kind of bottled,” she said. “It just felt like I don’t know, defeated and made me feel so helpless.”
Like parents everywhere, Cessac has struggled with pandemic stress for over 18 months.
There is the exhaustion of worrying about the disease itself – made worse by the spread of the more contagious Delta variant, especially among people who refuse vaccinations, which has led to a surge in infections in children.
Online schools disrupted children’s education and the work of parents. Then the return of face-to-face schooling that year brought mounting stress and tension in the community as parents struggled over the correct protocols. The politicization of masks, vaccines and shutdowns has exhausted many parents. Deciding what is okay for kids and what isn’t can be stressful.
“Parents are exhausted to an extent we’ve never seen before,” said Amanda Zelechoski, professor of psychology at Valparaiso University who founded the website and nonprofit Pandemic Parenting. “We’ve been in survival mode for a year and a half now and it’s relentless.”
Schools are a constant concern for many. There is evidence that masks in schools help reduce the spread of viruses, and a majority of Americans support the demand for masks for students and teachers. But that collapses sharply in party politics. Some Republican governors have tried to ban mask mandates. District policies on masks, testing, and quarantines vary widely. Shortly after schools reopened in August, the rate of coronavirus infections forced dozen of districts to stop face-to-face learning.
The four older daughters of Cessac in the Austin, Texas suburbs do not attend masks. Her children, who are too young to be vaccinated, told her that there were only a handful of children in their classes who would wear masks. But she sent them back to school when they recovered.
“It’s better nowhere else,” she said. âAll mothers, we feel trapped in this situation. We can not do anything.”
More than 5.5 million children in the US have tested positive for COVID-19, with 20% of all child cases occurring since the start of this school year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children are at lower risk of serious illness or death, but at least 498 have died.
Vaccines for children aged 12 and over have been available since May, but vaccination rates are below those of adults. Federal data shows that around half of 16 and 17 year olds are vaccinated, while 43% of 12 to 15 year olds are vaccinated; two-thirds of adults in the US are vaccinated.
And while a vaccine for younger children is expected before the end of the year, they remain more susceptible. Many parents felt lost in how best to protect them. “They still had parents struggling with decisions and what is safe for my family and feeling left behind or invisible because other parts of society were able to move on,” Zelechoski said.
Over a million students left public schools in the United States in the 2020 school year, which was marked by widespread distance learning. It’s not yet clear what happened that academic year, but struggles over masked mandates have led some parents to come up with alternatives.
Sheila Cocchi, a single mother who is still struggling with health problems after contracting COVID-19 in February, pays a teacher to give her 10- and 14-year-olds 10 hours a week at home using an online program Giving lessons. She also works from home in Fernandina Beach, Florida, north of Jacksonville.
âLast year it was like OK, the whole world went crazy and we all have to adjust to it. Now it’s a different kind of stress, âshe said. âWe are trying to get this under control as a nation, or at least as a state, and there are so many people who are not participating. I want my children to enjoy going to school as much as everyone else. “
Other parents say they know it is best for their children to go back to school and just hope it is okay.
In Fort Worth, Texas, Heather Buen, who works for a local utility company and is a Democratic policy organizer, keeps her children on wearing masks and washing their hands even when other children or even teachers don’t.
“It takes a lot of effort to keep it going,” she said.
She thinks she is helping her dad, an electrician, scare COVID-19 into sticking to preventive measures. The five children at school haven’t gotten sick, and Buen said she felt reassured because it appears that more students and staff are wearing masks now than at the beginning of the school year. Even so, parents from three counties, including theirs, have sued, saying schools violate students’ constitutional rights because there is no mask mandate.
The lawsuits, disputes on the school board, disagreements between family members and friends are also a source of stress.
âThe bashing on both sides was the hardest part,â says Sarah Brazwell, who has a 3-year-old in daycare and a 9-year-old in elementary school. She’s unwilling to get vaccinated, and wearing masks in her Florida panhandle town is “a bit pointless,” she said because so few people do.
Childcare – finding them, paying them, worrying about the spread of diseases – was a huge stress during the pandemic. Labor is scarce and finding a place can be difficult. Infections and exposures and even mild colds in daycare can result in children being sent home for days or weeks, forcing parents to keep trying to look after them.
Deanna Manbeck, CEO of her child’s small, nonprofit daycare center in Wilmington, Delaware, is responsible for the 20 or so families there. Masks are required for teachers but vaccines are not required for fear of staff stopping.
âHow can I tell the parents that we can no longer look after their children and that they have to look for a new center through a voluntary mandate? As a mother, I want all teachers to be vaccinated – but we are unable to hire them, âshe said.
Jeff Sheldon and his wife began interviewing nannies for their two sons, a 3-year-old and a baby, after daycare closed and routine teething problems kept their children at home for weeks this summer. He and his wife took sick leave and worked from home. Their mothers also helped.
âWe can’t live with the uncertainty that classes will close on short notice,â he said of the Lincoln, Nebraska daycare center, noting that his older son was doing well there.
While Sheldon has been able to work from home better than his wife, who works for the public school system, the pandemic has underscored the burden, especially on women, of arranging childcare and work, and millions of women have left working life.
Taking a vacation was a brief consideration for Dr. Ankita Modi, a pediatrician in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was upset, the thought even crossed her mind, she said, but she was so desperate. In her school district, masks are optional, there is no distance learning option, and she says contact tracing is ineffective. Local health officials agreed, threatening the district with legal action before agreeing on new procedures in late September.
Their youngest child, 11, is not old enough to be vaccinated; the other two are. “It feels like you are knowingly putting them at specific risk every day,” she said. âIt’s really annoying as a parent. I don’t think anyone has slept well since school started. “