by Tali Arbel
PHOENIX (AP) — Eight days into the school year, all five of Amber Sessack’s daughters, ages 4 to 10, tested positive for COVID-19.
All of them getting sick together and worrying about the long-term repercussions as other parents at their school, and even their own mother downplayed the virus, “broke something inside me, Sesack said.
“Anxiety and stress have been bottled up,” she said. “It just felt like, I don’t know, beat up and made me feel so helpless.”
Like parents everywhere, Sessack has been battling the stress of the pandemic for more than the past 18 months.
The disease is exhausting to worry about – made worse by the spread of the more contagious delta variant, especially among those who refuse vaccination, leading to a large increase in infections among children.
Online school disrupted children’s education and parents’ work. Then this year the return of in-person school led to increased exposure and community tensions as parents battled over proper protocol. The politicization of masks, vaccines and bandhs has exhausted many parents. It can be difficult for children to decide what is okay to do and what is not.
“Parents are exhausted on a level we haven’t seen before,” said Amanda Zelechowski, a Northwest psychology professor at Purdue University who co-founded the website and nonprofit Epidemic Parenting. “We’ve been in existence for a year and a half and it’s relentless.”
For many people, schools are a constant concern. There is evidence that masks in schools help reduce the spread of the virus, and most Americans support the need for masks for students and teachers. But it breaks fast along partisan lines. Some Republican governors have tried to ban the mask mandate. District policies on masks, testing and quarantining vary widely. Soon after schools reopened in August, the rate of coronavirus infections forced dozens of districts to withdraw from in-person learning.
Charter school Sessack’s four older daughters go to in Austin, Texas, the suburbs no longer require masks. Her children, who are too young to be vaccinated, told her they were among only a handful of children in their classes to wear masks. But as soon as they recovered, he sent them back to school.
“It doesn’t get better anywhere else,” she said. “All moms, we’re stuck in this situation. There’s nothing we can do.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than 5.5 million children in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19, accounting for 20% of all incoming children since the start of this school year. Children have a low risk of serious illness or death, but at least 498 have died.
Vaccines are available for children 12 years of age through May, but vaccination rates lag behind adults. Federal data shows that half of 16- and 17-year-olds are vaccinated, compared to 43% of 12- to 15-year-olds who are vaccinated; Two-thirds of American adults are vaccinated.
And while a vaccine is expected for young children before the end of the year, they remain more vulnerable. Many parents feel lost in how to protect themselves. “You still had parents struggling with decisions, and what was safe for my family, and feeling left behind or invisible as other sections of society were able to move forward,” Zelechowski said.
More than a million students dropped out of US public schools in the 2020 school year, which was marked by widespread remote classes. It is not yet clear what has happened this academic year, but the tussle over the mask mandate has prompted some parents to opt for the alternative.
Sheela Kochi, a single mother who is still battling health issues after being diagnosed with COVID-19 in February, launched an online program as well as classes for her 10- and 14-year-olds at home for 10 hours a week. Paying a teacher for She also works from home in Fernandina Beach, Florida, north of Jacksonville.
“Last year, it was fine, the whole world went crazy and we all have to adjust to it. Now it’s a different kind of stress,” she said. “We’re trying to get it under control as a nation, or at least as a state, and there’s a lot of people who aren’t participating. I’d like my kids to go to the same school.” Stay in, as much as anyone.”
Other parents say they know it’s best for their kids to return to school, and they hope that’s okay.
In Fort Worth, Texas, Heather Buen, who works for a local utility and is a Democratic politics organizer, tells her kids to wear masks and wash their hands, even when other kids or teachers don’t.
“It’s a lot of effort to keep it up,” she said.
She thinks that her father, an electrician, getting COVID-19 helped her stick to preventive measures. Five children at the school haven’t gotten sick, and Bunin said she feels reassured because it seems that more students and staff are wearing masks now than at the start of the school year. Still, parents from three districts, including her, have filed suit, saying the schools are violating the constitutional rights of students because there is no mask mandate.
Lawsuits, school board meeting fights, estrangement between family members and friends are also a source of tension.
“Blessing on both sides, this has been the hardest thing to do,” said Sarah Brazzwell, who has a 3-year-old in day care and a 9-year-old in elementary school. She is not up for vaccination and, despite overwhelming evidence that face coverings protect against the virus, said wearing a mask in her Florida panhandle city is “a bit pointless” because so few people do.
Child care – finding it, paying for it, worrying about the spread of diseases – has been a huge stress during the pandemic. Labor is in short supply and finding space can be difficult. Infections and exposures, and even minor colds in day care, can mean that children are sent home for days or weeks, leaving parents to visit the child frequently. Had to scramble.
Dina Manbeck, the board chair of the nonprofit Day Care for Her Child in Wilmington, Delaware, bears the burden of responsibility for about 20 families there. Masks are necessary for teachers, but employees will leave due to fear not vaccines.
“How can I tell parents that we can no longer care for their children and that they must find a new center on an alternative mandate? As a mother, I want all teachers to be vaccinated – but we We are not in a position to make them mandatory,” she said.
Jeff Sheldon and his wife began interviewing nanny for their two sons, a 3-year-old and a baby boy, home to their children for weeks at a time this summer after day care was closed and regular childhood illnesses kept. He and his wife spent sick days and worked from home. Their mothers also helped.
“We can’t live with the uncertainty of class closing at a moment’s notice,” he said of the day care in Lincoln, Nebraska, noting that his older son thrived there.
While Sheldon was more able than his wife, who works for the public school system, to work from home, the pandemic has especially underscored women’s burdens in balancing childcare and work, and Millions of women have left the workforce.
Taking leave was a brief idea for Dr. Ankita Modi, a pediatrician in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was upset that the idea even entered her head, she said, but she was so desperate. In her school district, masks are optional, there is no remote school option and she says contact tracing is ineffective. Local health officials agreed and threatened legal action against the district before the new procedures were agreed upon in late September.
Her youngest child, 11, is not yet old enough to be vaccinated; There are other two. “It looks like you’re intentionally putting them at a real tangible risk every day,” she said. “That, as a parent, is really disturbing. I don’t think anyone has slept well since school started.”
AP writer Brian Anderson contributed to this story from Raleigh, North Carolina.