Updated: August 16, 2021 11:00:59 am
By Dana Goldstein and Tariro Mzezewa
It was supposed to be a new school year, a fresh start with relative normalcy.
Instead, it has turned into a politicized, anxiety-provoking experience for many parents, students and educators.
This is the third academic year disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. And while there is now broad, bipartisan support for classrooms to be open five days a week, that was based on reassuring evidence from last year that the coronavirus did not spread widely inside schools.
The surge in the delta variant has introduced new uncertainty.
Across the United States, there have been more than twice as many daily virus cases this week as there were one year ago, and numbers of pediatric hospitalizations are rising in many regions. But it is unclear whether the delta variant presents more danger in U.S. schools than previous forms of the virus.
“Essentially, a year later, we’re in much the same place we were in last year with the challenge of keeping children safe,” said Raymond C. Hart, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of urban districts.
The delta crisis has also intensified and hardened political debates, particularly those over mask and vaccine mandates. These partisan battles pose their own kind of risk, threatening to overwhelm the public health messaging for students, parents and educators — which is, in essence: Go to school, get the vaccine if you’re old enough, and wear a mask indoors.
In interviews with families across the country, it became clear that partisan brawling might have obscured those guidelines and that parents were struggling to make crucial decisions for their children — vaccines? masks? online schooling? — while wading through the noise and the fury.
At stake, for everyone, is the return of the classroom experience. Already, schools in Georgia, Mississippi, Arizona, Texas and Indiana have temporarily closed.
Cobb County, in the Atlanta suburbs, may be a glimpse of what’s to come.
Virus cases in the county, as of Friday, had risen by 76% in the last 14 days. But the school district has chosen not to have a mask mandate, and in the first two weeks of school, which began August 2, the district reported more than 700 coronavirus cases among students and staff members. (Overall enrollment is 110,000.)
Last Wednesday, the entire fifth grade at East Side Elementary School in Marietta was sent home because so many children had tested positive for the virus.
At Walton High School, there was also an imperfect start. Holly Golden Simmel’s son, a junior, was exposed to COVID-19 twice on his first day, in homeroom and in a science class. On the third day, he was exposed yet again.
But he could still go to school, under the district’s policy, as long as he was asymptomatic and wore a mask for 10 days. Other students could remain unmasked.
“I was incredulous,” Golden Simmel said. “This is a disaster in the making.”
The lack of a mask mandate has stirred parents. On Thursday evening, there were protests outside the Cobb County district’s offices in Marietta. Golden Simmel and nearly 100 other parents — who want masks in schools and blame the superintendent for the lack of a mandate — clashed with a few who do not.
Mask protests are common, no matter the school policy. School districts surrounding Cobb County, like those in Atlanta and Gwinnett County, mandate masks for students and staff members. Those districts have also encountered obstacles to opening, including infections, mask resistance and lawsuits.
Nationally, 62% of parents support masking requirements for unvaccinated students and school personnel, according to a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. But in an indication of how politicized the debate remains, more than two-thirds of Republican parents oppose school mask mandates. And nine states, led by Republican governors or legislative majorities, have banned school mask mandates, according to research from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank.
There have been protests, on every side, in virtually every area of the country. And there has been open defiance by some school districts, like Broward County in Florida, which has ignored the ban on mask mandates that was imposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican.
That bitter divide is also evident in Texas, which is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases. A total of 237 children in the state were hospitalized with COVID-19 Aug. 10, and children’s wards are overwhelmed, officials said.
In response to the crisis, school officials in Dallas, Houston and Austin said last week that they would defy Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates and would require masking on campuses. Courts have backed them.
In San Antonio, too, city officials defied the executive order and required masks inside schools. Outside Lamar Elementary School, mask use certainly seemed to be happening — and the city’s mandate seemed to offer a bit of relief to worried parents.
Maria Ramirez, 50, said she had told her 8-year-old-daughter, Jaqueline, that she needed to wear a mask if she wanted to attend school in person.
“I’m 100% for masks,” Ramirez said.
She had a bout with the virus early in the pandemic and did not want her daughter to fall ill, especially with delta variant infections rising.
Not every parent trusted that masks were enough to protect children. Lan Martinez, whose 9-year-old daughter, Livi, attended Lamar Elementary before schools were closed in the last school year because of the pandemic, chose to skip in-person lessons this year and opted for online courses.
She fears that infections will get worse as the school year goes on. “She understands, even though she really misses her friends,” Martinez said of her daughter. “This variant is not kind to children.”
The next big debate may be about vaccine mandates, especially for teachers and school personnel. Some liberal-leaning cities, like Los Angeles and Chicago, are requiring all school staff members to be vaccinated. New York is planning to offer teachers the choice between vaccination and weekly testing. But a quarter of states, generally those that lean conservative, have banned vaccine mandates for public employees like teachers and school staff members, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Nearly 90% of the nation’s educators are vaccinated, according to a survey from Education Week. Yet a small but vocal group of rank-and-file educators oppose vaccine requirements. And vaccination rates differ by region, ranging from 79% in the Southeast to 91% in the Northeast and the West. Children in high-poverty school districts will be more likely to encounter an unvaccinated teacher than those in affluent districts, the survey found.
Leaders of the national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers said in recent days that they supported vaccine mandates for their members.
Kenzo Shibata, a high school social studies teacher in Chicago, said he felt reassured by his district’s vaccine mandate for educators, though he remained concerned about colleagues who were seeking medical or religious exemptions. He was aware of one co-worker, he said, who had been “steadfast” in avoiding the shot, and he had requested to not teach alongside her.
Shibata’s wife is a cancer patient with compromised immunity, and he also has an 8-year-old son, who is too young to be vaccinated.
Without adequate protections in place, he said, he would have taken a leave of absence.
“We have some real reservations” amid the delta surge, he said — both for himself, as a teacher, and for their child. “So much is in flux everyday.”
For children and their parents, vaccine mandates for students are very different from mask mandates.
A majority of parents of school-age children do not want schools to require students to get a COVID-19 vaccine in order to attend in-person classes, according to the Kaiser poll. And Florida and five other states have banned vaccination requirements for both students and public employees, like school personnel.
In Hollywood, Florida, which is part of the Broward County school district, Rod Velez, 51, said he supported the county’s mask mandate. But his ninth-grade son, who will attend South Broward High School, does not want to be vaccinated, and Velez is not forcing him to do so. “He’s going to be learning how to drive soon,” said Velez, who is a school board candidate. “So I’m trying to push him to start making his own decisions.”
Some families can be persuaded.
Jovan Reed, 35, and her two teenage sons, Raphael and Skylar, were vaccinated Thursday at Frederick Douglass Senior High School in New Orleans. Either the shot or regular virus testing is required for high school extracurricular activities, and both boys play football.
“I’m still skeptical,” Reed said of the vaccine. “But I’m doing it to be a supportive parent.”
The biggest question, so far unanswerable, is whether a rise in COVID-19 cases, or clusters in schools, will cut short the national experiment in a universal reopening.
In Cobb County, more than 2,000 students have opted for full-time online school, according to the district.
Those numbers may grow. Many parents who enrolled their children for in-person learning did so in the spring under the assumption that the district would continue the mask mandate it had in place earlier this year.
Cherish Burnham was one of those parents. After virtual schooling and home-schooling during the pandemic, she was grateful that her 10-year old triplets would start fifth grade at Tritt Elementary School in Marietta.
But this week, when infections rose and a nearby school sent its fifth graders home, she decided to keep her children home. If there are no new mask mandates, she is unsure about her next steps. She doesn’t want to home-school, but she is not ruling it out.
“You feel like you’re backed into a corner, and you don’t have a choice,” she said.
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