JUST WHEN IT seemed like a little normalcy might be returning to the lives of beleaguered California families at long last, the deep-seated angst and confusion that comes with parenting amid a pandemic has returned.
As the highly contagious Omicron variant sweeps through the state and a new wave of schools shut down due to outbreaks and staff shortages, many parents are feeling conflicted about sending their children back to school after winter break. The timing coincides with what may be the peak of the latest surge, as the infection count climbs and test kits and child-size masks are hard to come by, all of which puts more strain on frazzled parents.
“As a parent, I’m part of a community and an ecosystem where all of us are struggling right now,” said Janelle Scott, an Oakland mother of two children in their early teens. “Like a lot of parents, I can tell I’m nervous by how hard I’ve been clenching my jaw. The excruciating parental calculations of what is safe during this surge for teenagers who want and need to be with friends are exhausting.”
Some are most worried about schools shuttering again, fearful of remote learning, which led to emotional damage and learning loss for many families. Others, particularly those with children too young to be vaccinated, are keeping their children at home out of caution.
“We are afraid of sending our son back to his preschool,” said Amie Zheng, a Menlo Park mother of two who is keeping her 3-year-old son at home for now. “We feel health is the most important thing in our family. Mainly because we have a 6-month-old baby at home.”
The piercing uncertainty of the situation leaves many parents confused about how to proceed and what is safest for their children. The constant risk assessment can be draining.
“I would say we are worried about all of it,” said Qasim Ali, a father of two girls, ages 8 and 11, in Redwood City. “It’s a hard choice to make, but if I had to choose one thing I’m most worried about since both girls are thankfully vaccinated, I’d say we are most concerned about schools closing again.”
Running on empty
Many parents say they have been run ragged by navigating the ongoing volatility of the situation.
“It’s so frustrating. It’s been two years of this,” said Katharine Fitzpatrick, a mother of three who lives in San Diego County. “You reach a point of fatigue.”
Down to her last at-home test kit, she is scrambling to find more and take all necessary precautions with her three small children, ages 6, 5 and 3. However, even though her 3-year-old is too young to be vaccinated, Fitzpatrick remains committed to in-person learning.
“I know we need to be vigilant,” she said, “but at this point, I’m more worried about school shutting down than about anything else.”
Some parents feel strongly that safety measures have not been rigorous enough at school. Some have even switched their children from public to private schools as a result. Others are hoping that enhanced safety protocols will become more widespread as the public health crisis drags on.
“This is yet another example of how the pandemic exacerbated issues of inequity,” said Jessica Reid Sliwerski, an Oakland mother of one. “I don’t feel worried about sending my child to school because she goes to a private school where they’ve implemented weekly pool testing and have outdoor classrooms they’ve set up for kids. They figured out how to safely reopen when so many other kids were at home doing remote school.”
Sliwerski, a former teacher who now runs an educational nonprofit, is mindful of her privilege in this regard.
“I feel insanely fortunate that I can afford private school,” she said, “and also very sad that what my child is receiving isn’t universally what all kids are getting.”
Meanwhile, some parents of vaccinated children are avoiding most indoor activities other than school, for which they are willing to make an exception.
“It can happen anywhere, so why should we stop kids from going to school?” said Gaurav Bharadwaj, a Fremont father of one. “The only thing to do is to take precautions, get the vaccine, wear a mask, wash hands and try to stay outdoors as much as possible.”
There are myriad tradeoffs on the table. Staying at home might be best for a child’s physical health, for instance, keeping them safe from the virus, but it might also deepen the mental health crisis among youth. The surgeon general has called for urgent measures to grapple with the national emergency in children’s mental health triggered by the pandemic.
“They need school to socialize,” Bharadwaj said. “And I am afraid if they stop school I don’t know if they will open again.”
Learning loss is also a concern. Student test scores have plummeted in the wake of COVID-triggered remote learning. To make matters worse, the data shows that existing achievement gaps between Black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers have gotten even wider.
Many parents are concerned that children who fall behind now will struggle to catch up, shaping the course of their academic future for the worse.
“I am a stay-at-home mom, but I can’t duplicate the academics or the social-emotional learning of being in the classroom,” Fitzpatrick said. “They really need that peer engagement.”
Children crave stability, as all parents know, and recent Harvard research shows that educational disruptions, a hallmark of the pandemic that includes school shutdowns and switching between in-person, hybrid and remote learning formats, negatively affect children’s social, emotional, and behavioral well-being.
Juggling the shifting uncertainties and weighing the risks is no mean feat for stressed-out parents, some of whom are reluctant to let go of in-person learning and return to Zoom school.
“I’m so worn out. This has gone on for so long,” said Fitzpatrick, as her three children vie for her attention in the background. “Also, I can’t handle all the Zoom stuff.”
For others, the plan is to wait it out and hope for the best. Zheng, for one, intends to keep her little boy at home from preschool until the spike has passed.
“We will wait to see some numbers drop down,” she said. “Right now we are not comfortable when we are at the top of the pandemic wave.”