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Coronavirus

Relief, anxiety as US parents confront emotional back-to-school

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Kelly Toth was “very relieved” when her four sons went back to school in person at the end of August after more than a year of pandemic restrictions.

For the first couple of weeks, however, Toth said she also wrestled with an unexpected “anxiousness.” She found it strange not knowing what her children were doing in school after she monitored their education closely during the last academic year.

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Many parents in the United States are grappling with a host of emotions, taking extraordinary steps and making COVID-19 tests and vaccines part of the back-to-school routine.

Like Toth, some said relief at getting their kids back into classrooms full time - in her case in a district where indoor masking is currently mandatory - is mixed with worry about safety. The highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has led to a surge in hospitalizations, including among children.

That fear is at times compounded by the deep political fault lines evident in wildly different approaches taken by US schools on issues such as masking.

In the previous academic year Toth, 39, a Schnecksville, Pennsylvania physician’s assistant, juggled her children’s education with long shifts in the emergency room under the crush of COVID-19. She and her husband, a small business owner, tried their best to help with schooling but had “no idea what we were doing,” she recalled.

“I almost felt like I couldn’t enjoy being with them because it was always just the stress of, ‘we have to do this assignment, we have to do this’,” she said of her sons, ages 7, 8, 12 and 14.

This year, despite worry over delta, “I feel like I can be their mom again and not this controlling entity in their life,” she said.

‘I want to keep my children safe’

The delta variant has sent infections among young children soaring. Those under 12 years of age are particularly vulnerable as they are not yet eligible for vaccination.

That could change in the coming months. Pfizer and BioNTech said last week they plan as soon as possible to ask for regulatory authorization for their vaccine in children ages 5 to 11.

“I would definitely get my children vaccinated,” said New York City mother Jodi Cook, whose son and daughter are both under 12. “It’s a dangerous disease and I want to keep my children safe.”

While Cook’s 11-year-old daughter attended classes at a Brooklyn private school throughout the pandemic, her 7-year-old son struggled during periods of remote learning at his school. Both children are special needs learners, she said.

“I just feel like it’s worth the risk,” Cook said about sending them both back to the classroom full time. “It was just too hard trying to keep them mentally healthy at home.”

COVID-19 outbreaks this year have already sent students back to remote or hybrid learning, at least temporarily, in many US schools. There have been over 2,000 in-person school closures in K through 12 institutions in 39 states since August, according to data aggregator Burbio.com.

As worries over the delta variant grew this summer, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington Bothell looked at 100 large urban school districts in the United States.

At the end of July, it found just 41 percent offered a remote learning option, at least to some students. Less than two months later, only six of the 100 districts do not offer remote learning, CRPE’s Communication Director Laura Mann said by email.

Brian Corley’s two daughters learned in person throughout the past academic year, when masks were mandatory in their Birmingham, Alabama district.

Masks now are optional, Corley said, despite a deadly COVID-19 surge in Alabama, where vaccination rates are low.

The school policy has frustrated Corley and his wife, whose youngest daughter contracted an infection in early childhood that left her legally blind. Her previous history with viruses has her parents worried about how she might fare if she were to contract COVID-19.

Anne Martha Corley helps her daughter, Ella Rose Corley, 8, who contracted an infection in early childhood that left her legally blind, put on her shoes in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, U.S., September 25, 2021. Picture taken September 25, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah Beier
Anne Martha Corley helps her daughter, Ella Rose Corley, 8, who contracted an infection in early childhood that left her legally blind, put on her shoes in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, U.S., September 25, 2021. Picture taken September 25, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah Beier

“I don’t think it’s a terrible stretch to ask for our children, in schools, to be required to wear masks,” Corley said.

Living with worry

Many US parents have qualms about sending their children back to school. Only about one quarter of parents who responded to a nationwide online survey for the National Parent Teacher Association released earlier this month said they feel “very comfortable” with their children returning to the classroom.

Chief among concerns is their child contracting COVID-19 at school and a return to remote learning, according to the survey.

Artist and dog walker Allison Rentz signed up her 12-year-old son for in-person classes this year, calling it a “difficult” decision she made, in part, for his mental well-being.

Rentz said she has been testing her son for the coronavirus once a week with an at-home kit, and has him wear a KN95 mask at school.

The single mother drives him to and from his middle school in the Atlanta area, fearful crowded buses could be unsafe, and picks him up at lunchtime to keep him out of the cafeteria. They eat together in their car in the school’s lot.

“He hates that I check him out every day,” Rentz, 46, said in a phone interview. “That’s what I had to do in order to feel comfortable.”

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