Dear School Committee Member,
First, I’d like to thank you all for serving on the School Committee during this unprecedented time. Since March of 2020, you have been asked to become public health experts, social justice experts, budget experts, and community therapists, and have often borne the brunt of parental frustration. It has been no easy task handling these incredibly high-pressure situations with professionalism. Many states have failed our schools by punting to the local level the difficult policy decisions involved in determining how to educate children in a time of COVID. States, with their resources and access to experts, would certainly have been better positioned to make these decisions, and now the rifts and discord that followed in our communities feel like they may never heal.
Every time I think that the worst is surely behind us, the goalposts move. Last year, I was hopeful that life would be back to normal once we had the vaccine. Now we are faced with an issue I thought for sure would be behind us by now—to mask or not to mask? That is the question.
As a fully-vaccinated adult, with unvaccinated children at home, I have both enjoyed the greater freedom that has come with the availability of the vaccine, and dreaded the abandonment of the common sense safety precautions that helped my family get from the emergence of COVID-19 to the vaccine safely.
Last year, I started my children fully remote because, like many, I was worried that schools would be vectors of spread. I didn’t anticipate the toll being isolated at home would take. I also didn’t expect that children would be able to comply with mask-wearing. When the data came in that being in school was safe, I was all too happy to enroll my oldest children, who have no underlying health issues, in in-person school. The science is clear–the benefits of being in school outweighs the risks for most of us. We just need to take some common sense safety precautions. And it turned out, wearing a mask became no big deal to my children. Even my higher-risk twins were able to safely finish the school year in-person.
Now, a much different picture is emerging. In Florida, within a week, one Florida district has had more than 470 COVID cases, and has quarantined 1,000 people, while in Broward, three teachers died of COVID within 24 hours of each other. In Bowling Green, there were over 1,000 students and staff in quarantine three days into the school year, prompting a mask-mandate as a last ditch effort to keep kids in school. When I read the district’s superintendent say that “with the spread that we’re seeing, we could be forced in the near future to move all virtual,” I shuddered for the families there. Being forced to go back to virtual school is my nightmare.
Of course, in parts of the country where vaccination rates are better than Florida and Kentucky, it is easy to say that would never happen here. Towns with high vaccination rates should be proud. The only problem is that 100% of students under 12 remain unvaccinated, and we have seen mounting evidence that some of the vaccines offer less protection against the Delta variant, although thankfully, it still provides enough to keep the vaccinated out of hospitals and morgues.
Before the Delta variant was spreading, we understood COVID to be a mild disease for young children, so the risk to them from contracting it seemed dismissable. Kids do, after all, get all kinds of colds and we accept this as a routine part of growing up and building up their immune systems.
However, as the Delta variant spreads, its increased infectiousness is sending more children to the hospital. Even as we wait for enough data to know whether statistically Delta is more dangerous, in many hotspots, there are few or no pediatric ICU beds.
Last year, as we headed into winter, healthcare workers dreaded the potential for hospital systems to be overwhelmed by the flu and COVID-19 circulating together. Fortunately, thanks to mask-wearing, we largely avoided that as hospitalizations due to the flu virus were virtually non-existent. But this year, with mask-wearing restrictions lifted in most places, we will likely see the flu making its comeback.
Even more concerning for our kids is that parts of the country are already seeing another deadly virus, RSV, circulating at peak levels, unseasonably early. If you are a parent, and have never encountered RSV, consider yourself very fortunate. It not only can be life-threatening (each year in the United States, an estimated 58,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized due to RSV infection), once a child has had it, the child is at greater risk for developing a recurrent wheeze and asthma in later life. My own twins had it in the first year of life seven years ago. Even though they did not have to be hospitalized, we spent years afterwards battling viral-induced asthma, with nebulizer treatments, nose fridas, and steamy bathrooms. I can no longer count the number of nights I stayed awake trying to help them breathe, but I will never forget the heart-wrenching guilt I felt when a pulmonologist explained the link between their previous RSV infections, and the way they reacted to colds that barely slowed their slightly older siblings down. Could I have done something to keep them from getting RSV in the first place?
As if COVID-19 and RSV weren’t bad enough on their own, hospitals are now seeing the alarming trend of children being hospitalized with co-infections of both! The president of the Texas Pediatric Society, where pediatric ICUs are near or at capacity, was quoted saying, “the combination of RSV and COVID together has certainly proven to be very, very challenging…and on that note, we’re worried about what’s coming later in the season when influenza makes its comeback.” With both viruses out there as we head into the new school year, and the flu surely not too far behind, I find myself dreading the first day of school. I know that a surprisingly large percentage of parents seem to want to leave the safety of mask-wearing behind, even for children who are still unvaccinated and vulnerable. It seems inevitable that no matter what you do, some will be unhappy, and even worse, some will be openly hostile and angry. I don’t envy the position you are in, but I am grateful that you continue to rise to the challenge and make decisions thoughtfully. My too-young-to-be-vaccinated children will wear masks either way, but I realize that my children wearing a mask will only go so far in protecting them if a contagious person is in the room without a mask. And eventually, there will be a contagious person in their class. Already this year, we have seen a parent send their COVID positive kid to school in Nevada, potentially exposing 80 people. You may expect better from your community, but what if a child is sick and never gets tested? What about the teacher with the mild or asymptomatic break-through case that didn’t suspect COVID, the teacher that can’t safely be vaccinated, or the well-meaning guest or visitor that “pushes through” feeling a little unwell to keep their commitment to a class of excited young children expecting them? Even if wearing a mask protects some children from getting sick, will the disruptive quarantines be worth it? How will someone apply the close contact rules to a classroom full of students where no one can be sure which students were wearing a mask at any given moment and which ones were not? I know ultimately, you may come right back to your vaccination numbers, which should have been enough to establish herd immunity, but we have to think about children as the most important part of that herd. Even if you are not worried about the reduced efficacy of at least two of the vaccines, or about the way the vaccine may continue to mutate to be vaccine resistant until the world catches up in its vaccine efforts, Delta could still rage rampant in the under-12 set until kids can be vaccinated. Let’s give our kids the best chance for having a complete school year in person, by wearing masks indoors at least until the next age group is cleared to get the vaccine. Depending on your city or town, it may not be the popular decision, but it is the one that will keep the most grownups and children safe and in school.