On August 18, the Biden Administration issued a memorandum that clearly articulated a desire to "ensure a safe return to full-time, in-person school for our Nation's children." Weeks before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Association of Pediatrics issued recommendations in favor of in-person learning that include mask-wearing for all staff members and students older than 2-years-old regardless of vaccination status. Districts around the United States, including New York City Public Schools (the largest district in the country), have taken steps to remove remote learning options altogether. State boards of education across the country are, in large part, planning for schools to provide full-time, traditional instruction. And as parents learn more about the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant, they are left to weigh their options.
- Jason Salemi, PhD, MPH, Jason Salemi, PhD, MPH, is a tenured Associate Professor with joint appointments at theUniversity of South Florida College of Public Health and the Morsani College of Medicine.
Virtual school rollouts had mixed results for students last year. Langston's 10-year-old twins—one diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and both with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)—struggled with sitting in front of a screen for six hours. While A'Driane Nieves, a mother of 11-year-old and 7-year-old sons diagnosed with autism, says her children thrived under at-home instruction. However, her eldest son has ADHD and quietly fell under an avalanche of schoolwork—even though, under her son's educational plan, Nieves and her husband were supposed to be notified.
Both Langston and Nieves were looking forward to in-person school, mainly because institutions struggled to meet the needs of disabled students during remote learning, but that excitement has waned. They expressed concern that prioritizing traditional instruction ignores students who might flourish in a virtual or hybrid setting—and it seems to gloss over rising COVID-19 cases among young people. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association reports that kids accounted for around 15 percent of new COVID-19 cases across the nation during the first week of August. Despite the alarming numbers, "the likelihood of severe illness in children is still much lower than other age groups, and is not a high risk," says Jason Salemi, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health.
"I don't see how we come out of this taking away options. I feel like a pandemic, especially in terms of education, presented us with the opportunity to create more options for families."
This context, however, provides little comfort to parents struggling to figure out the best course of action. The parents I spoke with agree that school administrators and legislators are failing students by narrowing educational choices instead of expanding them. "I don't see how we come out of this taking away options," Nieves says. "I feel like a pandemic, especially in terms of education, presented us with the opportunity to create more options for families."
To complicate matters more, some states have tried to circumvent mask recommendations for students. In Florida, where Langston resides, Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order prohibiting local school boards from enacting mask mandates in schools, even going so far as to threaten the salaries of school officials who refuse to comply. The order was struck down, and the U.S. Department of Education has since warned five other states that they'll investigate mask ban mandates. But, even in districts where masking is prevalent, compliance is hard to enforce. A recent CDC study involving a California teacher who removed her mask to read aloud and infected over half of her class suggests that mandates alone might be inadequate as children under 12 remain ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccines.
To that end, Dr. Salemi and other public health professionals caution that mitigation strategies must go beyond mask-wearing. Adequate ventilation is an essential component of maintaining health, Dr. Salemi says. "Are we opening windows and doors [or] using fans, if we have them? Can we tailor the HVAC system so that they're trying to bring in as much outdoor air as possible?" Dr. Salemi says. "If children are riding on buses, can we roll the windows down, trying to get as much circulation and ventilation?"
In the absence of straightforward prevention strategies, parents must contend with varying state and local political climates on preventive measures. Carla Agard-Strickland and her husband Erik have contemplated pulling their 8-year-old daughter from the Chicago Public School (CPS) system. Agard-Strickland has misgivings about the ability of CPS, the third-largest school system in the nation, to quickly reverse their decision on in-person-only instruction if the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise. "We just want the public school system to present an option that we could take in good conscience," she says, adding that removing her daughter from school will put a financial strain on her family. "This is a failing of the social safety net," she says.
Concerns about child safety aren't the only factors plaguing parents. The following question is also looming: What happens to families if parents get sick? Both Langston and Nieves have asthma and other conditions that place them at high risk for severe illness if infected with COVID-19. For them, the stakes are incredibly high.
Last October, Langston and his ex-wife hired a tutor to supervise their kids' virtual learning while they worked. That option isn't available to them as another COVID-19 school year begins. Given his health conditions and his children's diverse educational needs, he's considering quitting his job. "I know everybody can't do that. I won't say I can do it easily," Langston says. "I can still make sure my bills get paid if it really means keeping them safe."
For now, Langston says he plans to tell his kindergartener on the first day of school, "I know you're excited to see somebody your height, but you can't hug everybody. You have to keep your distance." And although officials do not expect a coronavirus vaccine for children under age 12 to receive authorization before mid-winter, the parents who shared their stories all plan on immunizing their children when the shot becomes available. And Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has said he supports a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all school children in the United States.
Until then, parents like Agard-Strickland, Langston, and Nieves are holding their breaths—and holding out hope—for a safe school year for all children.
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