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For parents with kids under 12, ‘confidence is a pipe dream’ as a new school year approaches

With no statewide mask mandate, no vaccines, and rising COVID cases, parents are left to make (and defend) their own decisions

According to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 4.2 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic’s onset.
According to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 4.2 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic’s onset.Chris Granger/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP/File

Does this feel like a cruel joke? Parents were hoping for a calm return to school in September. But if you have kids under 12, there’s a gnawing sense that not much has changed at all. The age group doesn’t have a vaccine. COVID-19 cases are ticking up in Massachusetts. Mask advisories are back in place throughout the state. And patience is running out.

According to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 4.2 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic’s onset. Almost 72,000 cases were added as of July 29, a substantial increase from the prior week, when roughly 39,000 cases were reported. Child cases increased steadily in July.


Meanwhile, Governor Charlie Baker says the state will strongly recommend masks for unvaccinated students and staff this fall but that school districts should decide what’s best.

“I’m not going to get into making decisions that I believe, in many cases, ought to be driven, at the end of the day, by the folks at the local level who know those communities best,” Baker said this week at an event in Revere. “That said, it’s a strong recommendation for K through 6 that kids should wear masks because there is no vaccine available for K through 6.”

Are we just supposed to send our kids back to school, cross our fingers for good health and strong district guidance, and hope for the best? We’re in a perpetual state of whiplash, forced to make (and defend) our own choices: Do we need masks or don’t we? Is Delta under control or isn’t it? Is this the summer of joy, as the Biden administration once promised, or the summer of ambiguity?

Sign up for our parenting newsletter, In the Family Way.
Sign up for our parenting newsletter, In the Family Way.Heather Hopp-Bruce

Last week, I surveyed parents on what academic or health provisions they’d need to feel confident in September. You weren’t shy — and you were definitely divided. Twenty-eight percent of you disagree with masking in schools, while 72 percent believe in it. Many don’t want kids back in school without some kind of mask mandate. The CDC recommends masking indoors for anyone unvaccinated over the age of 2, but some parents think they’re useless.


“Masks are completely unnecessary! Kids do not get more than a cold with [COVID], and they do not spread it when healthy. Look at actual research and data! We have known for decades that masks do nothing for respiratory illnesses,” wrote Kerry in Medfield, who wants a return to school with “no measures whatsoever.”

Parents who were against masking feared repercussions, typically preferring to remain anonymous in their replies.

“I would be happy to provide my name if it were not for the risks of how people in my town (even on my street) would harass me or my children for having opinions that children should not wear masks in school,” one commenter wrote. “I believe people [who] want kids to wear masks in school are able to speak freely and with fewer repercussions than those [who] don’t.”

The anonymous writer might have a point, because for many parents, this truly is a matter of life and death.

“Clearly, mask refusers are selfish,” wrote Willo in Beverly. “There is no other explanation. A very few have legitimate excuses, but my asthmatic kid manages in a mask without difficulty, as does my father-in-law with lung problems. Many refusers are liars. … Wear a few square inches of cloth and do your part to protect the innocent! As a person of faith, I’m baffled by purported Christians — or Jews — who defy the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”


Other parents felt that the state and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education hadn’t offered firm enough health guidance.

“Universal masking and better distancing in school is critical. I don’t understand why Baker thinks he knows better than the CDC and the AAP,” wrote Belmont’s Charles Bandes.

“In Spring 2020, DESE threw up its hands and said, ‘It’s up to you’ when schools needed their guidance and cover most. Then, last fall and this past spring, DESE forced everyone to do the same thing when the schools needed the flexibility. [Now], the state needs to explicitly acknowledge that this virus is predominantly spread via airborne transmission, so telling us that kids will be separated by plastic shields or be mask-less but three feet apart simply won’t cut it. Enough with the hygiene theater. We need all humans in all indoor school spaces masked at all times,” wrote an anonymous commenter in Arlington.

“We need a mask mandate from the governor and DESE for all students K-12, teachers, staff, and visitors in school, regardless of vaccination status,” wrote Jen from Melrose. “It seems unfair for children of families who are following health guidelines to be put at risk by adults and children whose parents are unwilling to mask or vaccinate. I do not want my children in a classroom with unmasked or unvaccinated children who pose a direct risk.”


Some don’t see how kids can return to school whatsoever without a vaccine.

“I won’t feel safe until both my kids (six and two) can be vaccinated. And then, given the spread of Delta, I’d still need school to impose mask mandates. We have to do more this time around,” wrote Brockton’s Victoria Flynn.

“I absolutely think Massachusetts should make it possible to hold remote schooling again more than anything. Over the last few months my confidence has fallen,” wrote Talia in Boxborough. “The reality is this is still a prevalent problem with no solution for [this] age group. Why would I waste all that hard work and just send them back to school like normal when things have gotten worse recently and likely will continue to decline?”

For other parents, though, the prospect of not returning to school at all is unthinkable. Kids need a safe haven, or at least the illusion of safety.

“Let [kids] feel like school is safe. Let the kids be kids, or in 10 to 20 years we are going to have (through no fault of their own) a colossal batch of mentally ill, socially inept, uneducated human beings entering the workforce and gearing up to run the country. That thought terrifies me so much more than the possibility of my daughters contracting COVID,” wrote Ashley Maloy in Danvers.


Amid all the uncertainty and emotion, one anonymous commenter summed it up best: “Confidence is a pipe dream at this point. I’d settle for ‘not terrified’ and be thrilled with ‘almost comfortable.’”

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.