‘I don’t think we can wait until August 6’: Elementary age parents struggle to decide whether to send their children back to public school
PITTSBURG, Kan. — With less than three weeks until the start of the school year, parents are anxiously waiting with bated breath for the USD 250 Board of Education and local health officials to make a decision about masking in classrooms for the upcoming school year.
“As a parent, I am extremely frustrated that the school board and the health officials are continuing to postpone this decision until less than one week before school is scheduled to start,” said Heidi Casper, a local and mother of six.
Of Casper's six children, four are school-aged, two will be attending elementary school — where the largest group of unvaccinated children will be — and one of the elementary-age children is immunocompromised.
“I believe my children have a right to free public education that is safe,” Casper said, “and I don’t believe that right now the officials are putting that at the forefront of their decision-making for all students.”
In spite of parents like Casper vocally expressing their frustration, the board, along with county health officials decided to wait on making a masking recommendation until August 5, just over one week before the start of school, which is set to start for all students on August 13, and because of that Casper said her family has started looking at other school options for her elementary-age kids.
“We had an interview with a private school this morning,” Casper said. “We are also exploring public K-12 virtual schools in Kansas because I am not confident that the health officials and the school board are going to make a decision to mask the unvaccinated elementary population and be able to keep my children safe. So I don’t know if we can wait until August 6 to make a decision on if our children are going to USD 250.”
Pushing off making the decision came even after area pediatricians sent the board, and all the school boards in the county, a letter urging them to require masks for students, teachers and staff in school buildings as the Delta variant ravages the county and the country.
“The universal use of masks in schools is still the best way to protect vulnerable children from serious illness and death due to COVID-19 infection that could be transmitted in the classroom setting, at least until those children have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated,” the letter says. “The use of masks in schools is not always popular among all parents, but it is still our duty to protect children from serious illness and death. Ultimately, the health and safety of our children in schools rest in your hands.”
The letter, signed by 10 area doctors who worked with kids, stressed that they feel masking is the most effective way to keep kids safe as the next school year begins.
“We have recently been hearing concerns from parents in our communities about children not being protected by mask use at school in the fall,” the letter said. “Many parents have said that they do not feel comfortable sending their as-yet unvaccinated children back to school in person if masks are not going to be universally used.”
Additionally, the letter outlined three different recommendations with varying levels of severity:
Option 1: Follow the CDC’s official recommendations regarding mask use in schools and require all unvaccinated students at all grade levels to wear masks, the same way they did last year.
Option 2: Require all unvaccinated elementary, middle school, and junior high students to wear masks, and strongly encourage (but not necessarily require) unvaccinated high school students to wear masks.
Option 3: Give parents the choice to enroll their children into "Masked" classrooms and "Unmasked" classrooms. This would provide protection to fewer students, and may open up more possibilities for bullying, but may be an acceptable compromise for school districts with large numbers of parents who are opposed to mask use.
Regardless of which option, if any, the districts were to choose the letter also recommends implementing the following strategies:
- Require mask use during activities that are at high risk for transmitting COVID-19, such as while singing or cheering.
- Continue to follow other mitigation strategies as recommended by the CDC, KDHE, and/or the local health department, such as increased ventilation, hand hygiene, frequent disinfection of surfaces, etc.
- Enforce mask use for all students if recommended by the local health department, based on increased numbers of local cases, the introduction of new COVID-19 variants, or if recommended by the CDC or KDHE.
Dr. Krista Mijares and Dr. Susan Pence, two pediatricians who signed the letter, noted that masking is especially important as the Delta variant continues to infect more and more people, particularly those who are younger.
“Children's Mercy [a prominent children’s hospital in Kansas City] reached capacity over the weekend which means that they will not take transfers from us,” Pence said.
Mijares said that while the number of children seriously affected by the new Delta variant is small compared to adults, it's still important to take steps to protect children from being infected.
“Any single child that dies from Covid is a tragedy,” she said, “and if it is completely preventable by having the children wear masks, which we know works, then that would be a double tragedy.”
Mijares also noted that wearing masks will help stop the spread of the flu and RSV, which were hardly an issue last year in schools due to masking.
However, Mijares said she is not advocating for masking in schools indefinitely only pointing out that if this year there were no masks in schools and doctors had to deal with the flu and RSV seasons on top of COVID-19, it would not be good.
“If you combine RSV plus, presuming influenza is going to hit during the normal flu season if people are unmasked, and then you add in Covid, that’s going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back,” she said. “Everybody sick all at once with dangerous viruses.”
Many of the parents who are expressing concern about masks have children under 12 who cannot get the vaccine or children who are immune-compromised and are much more susceptible to the contagious Delta variant of COVID-19.
“This Delta variant is much more virulent, and children are being infected at great rates,” said Dr. Angela Shaw who signed the letter and has a daughter entering sixth grade at PCMS.
Shaw, who is an ObGyn at Ascension Via Christi Women’s Health Pittsburg, said, “I’m really concerned about the school-age kids especially those under 12. My daughter falls into that category. At the middle school, at least a third of the students will be unable to be vaccinated, and that is just assuming that the other two-thirds of the students have been vaccinated as is recommended. My family has continued to mask in public, and my daughter will mask at school. But it concerns me that we’re not requiring mandatory mask at least through the first semester.”
As a result, many parents with children in these groups are considering whether to even send their kids to public school.
“As a parent, I will have to consider whether I send my child to in-person learning or begin homeschooling,” Shaw said. “And that’s what we likely would have to do if we can’t come to a decision about requiring masking again in schools.”
However, Mijares pointed out that some parents don’t have the luxury of considering homeschooling or private school.
“That’s really not something a lot of our families can do,” Mijares said. “We have a lot of families who are single parents or both parents have to work, they can’t afford to have a parent stay home with their child and they may not have the expertise to homeschool their child, they don’t have the financial resources to hire a tutor or send them to a private school.”
“But all of our children have a right to an education in a safe environment, and we’re not offering that if we don’t require masks at least in the buildings where children who are unable to be vaccinated are going to be spending their day.”
Parents, like Casper, also expressed concern about comments the board of education had made, making it clear that even if the board decides to require masks at the start of school, they could reverse that requirement at any time.
“As a parent, if I made a decision that my children were going to start the school year masked,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that two weeks down the road that they are going to switch to ‘normal’ operations.”
Although the school board ultimately has final say, they are heavily reliant on the recommendation of County Health Officer Dr. Tim Stebbins who said at the board of education meeting earlier this week that he wanted to wait until he could make a decision with the most current and up-to-date data despite members of the board asking if he could provide his recommendation sooner.
“We’re going to maintain what our recommendations are based on what's going on currently and what we see,” he said. “I think it's important that we have a decision that is not a forever decision, because Covid is not forever, and we could be causing more harm than good with the decisions we make.”
“It’s truly based on science, current data and common sense, and we’ll continue that.”
Stebbins recognized that recommendations from both KDHE and the CDC currently do say to have unvaccinated children masked in schools, but he added that those entities are making decisions for an entire state or country and don’t know the situation in Crawford County. Also adding that as a parent who has a vaccinated child entering high school, he understands parents’ frustrations.
“I’m very clear on the concerns because I got one there,” he said. “He is vaccinated, I will say that, but I have those concerns. I still have a mother with cancer, I’ve got concerns. I get it.”
However, parents with children who cannot get vaccinated, noted that they feel Stebbins does not really understand because his children are able to get the vaccine.
“He does not have four children in his household that cannot be vaccinated,” Casper said. “The risks to his household are completely different than the risks of households with families who have children that cannot be vaccinated.”
Currently, anyone under the age of 12 is not expected to be able to get the vaccine until mid-October, and those under the age of 5 are not expected to be eligible for vaccines until next year.
To his credit, some of the doctors who signed the letter urging masking in school recognized that this year more than last year Stebbins and the County Health Department are between a rock and hard place.
“I understand the health department wanting to make sure that when they make a formal recommendation that they have all the most current data,” Mijares said. “But if the infection rates don’t improve, I can’t see a situation in which masking wouldn’t be necessary.”
Unlike last year when Stebbins could mandate masking in schools, this year he can only make a recommendation due to legislation that was passed by the state legislature earlier this year.
“The mandate has to come from the county commission or the school district themselves,” Pence said.
Mijares added on saying, “It wasn’t us going around the health department, it was more that the health department is in a precarious position because they get a lot of blowback from the public about what they recommend and what they don’t recommend, and they have to be a little more cautious when they make blanket recommendations. Whereas we have the luxury of saying ‘well this is what is best for our patients who are the children being affected by this.”
The CDC changed its recommendation on masking Tuesday afternoon, from urging unvaccinated people to wear masks in highly transmissible areas, to ask all adults to wear masks when indoors in highly transmissible areas.
Stebbins is expected to make his recommendation to the board next week.
Jordan Meier is a staff writer for the Morning Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org