What Has This School Year Cost America’s Children?
Caught in the political tug of war, the pandemic’s toll on children is the hidden devastation
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Last September, I sent my kids to school. I couldn’t walk them inside. COVID rules prevented it, so I waved and watched them, masked up and beaming, walk into a world beyond my control.
I live in Iowa, where the governor forced schools to offer 50 percent of core subjects in person. And punished schools that tried to keep students home. In Des Moines, schools opened for online-instruction only in defiance of the governor’s rule. And right now, the superintendent is fighting to keep his administrative license and the school board voted not to renew his contract.
The private school my kids attend stayed open for in-person learning despite the pandemic and an inland hurricane that destroyed the school’s roof and delayed school opening by two weeks. They mandated masks, kept visitors out of the building, kept the kids in pods with their class, never mixing with the other classes and eating lunch in their rooms. It seemed fine, but it had to seem fine. There was nothing else I could do.
Keeping them home wasn’t an option. I am a single parent who negotiates co-parenting with another working parent. So much of my life as a parent has been about keeping them safe. I plugged up outlets, set up baby gates. I kept blankets out of cribs and followed them along playground equipment. Sending my kids to school in a pandemic went against every instinct I had. And yet, what choices did I have? The world was broken, and I was given so few options.
Politicians and policy makers talk a lot about “what’s best for children.” But our ideas of children are often just a palimpsest where we write our own anxieties. The mother of my daughter’s friend, an anti-masker who is also anti-vaccine, says that masks give children stress and anxiety. I have another friend who hasn’t left her home at all, and declares her children too stressed to go into school. I don’t think these parents are wrong. I don’t think they are right. I don’t think I am right. One of the reasons I hated being a child so much was that my life felt like a dance around the live wires of adult expectations, moods, and fears. It truly is so hard for us to see children for who they are.
As a person who is co-parenting with someone who generally disagrees with me, I’ve been at a loss. I wonder if I gave up too quickly on fights that I should have stood my ground for? I wonder if I should have worried less? I wonder if there was ever going to be a right way to raise a child in a global extinction event?
And so here we are, pushing and pulling in a multi-player game of political and cultural tug of war and our kids are caught in the middle.
Every school day for this past year, I watched my children’s pink and green backpacks disappear behind the school door into a world of disease and so many unknowns.
My daughter will come home and tell me about teachers who just “took breaks” for a bit, which kids are missing from which classes, and which parents tested positive. But I have no way of really knowing what is happening inside that building. No one says anything. A teacher at another school told me people are resistant to testing. Because if you test positive, you have to tell people. If you keep quiet, you can just stay home for a few days. Four weeks before the end of the school year, the principal was hospitalized with pneumonia and one class was put into quarantine.
This year, an estimated 40,000 children lost a parent to COVID-19. Over 2 million children have contracted the disease, a number that might be undercounted. Studies show that over half of children who contract COVID-19 have symptoms lasting for longer than 120 days. No one knows how many teachers have died from COVID-19 this year. In fact, COVID-19 and school spread is undercounted and understudied. Sara Anne Willette, who was contracted by the Iowa Teachers Union to track COVID in the schools, told me:
“While the risk for death for kids is low, it is not zero as we have had at least three kids in Iowa die from COVID-19. The CDC looked at school transmission in K-5 institutions in Georgia during the peak surge. They found that schools that had masking saw a 37% reduction in school-related transmission, which was only based on teachers and staff being mandated to mask up. The CDC has made it clear that masking for children is crucial to protecting them from passing the virus to classmates and friends until they are able to be fully vaccinated. It is expected that all school-age kids should be fully vaccinated around Thanksgiving, which means mask mandates will be necessary in the fall to prevent a kid-surge.”
“Children are safe” was one of the first things people believed. Because somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that COVID is a game of numbers rather than an issue of life.
But there are also the children lost by not being in school. Without resources, without meals, without help, they’ve disappeared from the public school system, which has become a de facto social safety net in a country with too few of them. I’m so lucky my kids are in school. I realize that so much of my life and livelihood rely on school as a safety net. I also realize it’s unfair to prop up society on the shoulders of underpaid, overworked teachers, who are themselves at risk.
The grand illusion of America is that we have a country with choices. What pandemic has shown parents is that there are no choices, no good ones anyway.
When a friend calls to ask me if she should send her kids to school when her state opens up, I tell her that every choice is a bad choice. America’s mothers have no help. We have no resources. Our children have no help or resources. Neither do our teachers. It’s just a trickle-down effect of failure.
On May 20, with just a little over a week left of school, I woke up to an email from the school: The governor passed a law that prohibits schools from mandating mask wearing, so they would be complying with her orders.
The law was about freedom, she announced. About choices. Which was ironic coming from a governor who is pushing to amend the state’s constitution to prevent abortions. But here we were. We’d come this far and now and whatever control schools had in protecting kids, who still can’t be vaccinated, was gone.
Dr. Eli Perencevich, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa, told me, “Children under 12 years old can’t be vaccinated. All unvaccinated people including children need to wear masks indoors to reduce community transmission until local county infections are at ‘low risk’ levels. Masks are about protecting others. They are about community protection.”
Five days after schools were no longer allowed to enforce mask wearing, Dana Jones, a nurse practitioner in Iowa, whose methodical approach to data revealed how last fall Iowa’s government was hiding COVID-19 numbers, tweeted that her child had contracted COVID-19. As my small son likes to say, sighing and strapping a mask over his cheeks, “COVID isn’t over, people!”
The morning after the law was passed, I sat with my kids in the car in the drop-off line. I once again explained the risks. I once again explained that this was about protecting the people we love. I once again told them I loved them and that it was hard when adults pulled you back and forth like this. And once again, I watched them put their masks on and walk through the doors of the school.
Last year, I wrote about sending my kids to school in a pandemic.
Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email which includes interviews, essays and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics and our bodies and more.