First, You Decide That Kids Belong in School

What happened when my West Texas community—unlike many large blue cities—prioritized a normal education for children

A hallway in a school
Ben Powell / Odessa American / AP

About the author: Carrie McKean is a writer based in Midland, Texas.

On the day before school resumed this past August, when the COVID-test positivity rate in our West Texas community was soaring past 25 percent and the local paper’s headlines trumpeted the rapidly worsening situation, my elder daughter, who was entering the fifth grade, told me she couldn’t wait for classes to start.

It was only August 2, weeks before the Midland Independent School District would ordinarily have opened. But in an effort to mitigate the academic losses associated with one and a half disrupted years, our public schools wanted more face-to-face time with students. Ready to coax and cajole my summer-loving children out the door, I was unprepared for my daughter’s enthusiasm. She was glad, she told me, that school would be back to normal. From her perspective, COVID was over.

This wasn’t true, of course. Unbeknownst to her, the coronavirus was again straining our local hospital that very day. Now, as the Omicron wave has yet to crest in much of the country, the virus remains a daunting threat: At the local hospital, which draws patients from around our region, an average of one patient a day has died in January with COVID on their chart.

Still my husband and I have attempted to prudently navigate the pandemic while shielding our children from its most terrifying threats. I am not an epidemiologist or a public-health officer, but as a parent and a citizen I understand that 10-year-old shoulders should not have to bear the full weight of reality.

COVID is real. So is our experience out here in West Texas, where schools have gone back to operating much as they did before the pandemic. Masks are optional. The kids can sit where they want at lunch and play with who they want at recess. They typically take COVID tests only when they show symptoms and quarantine only when they are sick.

From afar, we read about big-city school districts where potential exposures—not even positive tests—trigger a cascade of teacher and student absences, and where administrators, parents, and teachers’ unions fight about whether schools should be open at all. We hear of places where schools shut down, ostensibly out of an abundance of caution, but bars and theaters do not.

In my community, we understand that keeping kids in class is partly a matter of will. You can call us selfish and anti-science for the way we’ve handled our schools, but that is not true. Consider the devastating social, emotional, and educational consequences experienced by students across our country. Is it selfish to prioritize human connection? Is it anti-science for Americans to not mask children when much of Europe never has?

Kids are resilient, the chorus goes, even as they’re reaching their breaking point. When we adults reach our breaking point, we berate ourselves for not being tougher. Have you lost your steely resolve to fight COVID forever? Shameful.

But it’s not shameful. It’s just proof that you’re human. And longing to do more with your time than simply fighting COVID is proof that you’re alive.

My unmasked kids get on a public-school bus each day. My husband and I both go to work in the office. We attend piano recitals and school plays. Last month, my fifth grader capped off her fall semester with a classroom holiday party where we parents passed out slices of pizza, Capri Suns, and grocery-store sugar cookies. The whole affair, like the whole semester, was everything she’d hoped it would be: decidedly pre-pandemic and reassuringly normal.

Our experience suggests that prioritizing normalcy does not directly correlate with more dire outcomes. Our infection curves look much like everyone else’s: waves that begin at unpredictable times but subsequently ebb. Hospitals in West Texas, just like those elsewhere, occasionally become overwhelmed. Seasonality and countless other factors make comparisons across regions difficult; our county currently has a higher rate of COVID hospitalizations than San Francisco, for example, but a lower rate than New York City or Washington, D.C.

In Midland, local health officials simply aren’t convinced that kids in classrooms are at significant risk—even in the absence of a mask mandate—or that they pose enough danger to others to warrant a return to virtual school. “We know children rarely get really sick” from COVID, Larry Wilson, the chief medical officer of Midland Memorial Hospital, told me by email. Areas of the country that have relied more on remote learning and prescribed more social-gathering restrictions in schools, he argued, “haven’t done any better regarding disease burden than those areas [that are] not so controlling.” He also noted that open schools have benefits for the health-care system: “When schools are closed, a care provider must stay home,” Wilson wrote. “The impact is a reduction in hospital work force.”

During the pandemic, my community has gotten some big things wrong. Vaccine refusal, whether motivated by distrust of the system that created the vaccine or the desire to prove a political point and demonstrate loyalty to a tribe, has cost red America lives and at times contributed to overwhelmed hospitals. But we got at least one thing right: After only a few months of pandemic living in the spring of 2020, we rallied to prioritize our children’s holistic well-being. As it turns out, returning childhood normalcy has a trickle-up effect on the rest of us. Seeing a little boy’s gap-toothed smile in the checkout line makes the whole world feel less apocalyptic.

By letting children go about their lives, we are accepting some possibility of spreading the virus to adults who are far more vulnerable to it. But burdening children mostly for adults’ sake is a moral judgment too—one that no community should make lightly, especially if adults can take other precautions.

Despite the scary headlines and terrifying what-ifs, extensive data indicate that vaccines (and likely prior infection) largely protect the vulnerable from severe illness, even with Omicron circulating rapidly. Every adult in the United States has had the chance to get vaccinated and boosted. We’re all free to wear a mask and take other measures for our health, including staying at home as needed. Promising antiviral treatments that dull COVID’s ferocity are on the way. Omicron might be highly contagious, but the coronavirus is no longer novel. It has no cruel time-machine-like power to return us to March 2020, when Americans had nothing in our arsenal except homemade masks.

Taking this all into account has empowered communities like ours to respond to year two of COVID in much the same way that Americans typically manage annual waves of influenza. The sick remain at home, and the healthy carry on. Rather than treating the coronavirus as something we could possibly still conquer if we’d all just buckle down and try harder, most of us accept that it is here to stay. And we can resist the temptation to see any outcome short of total eradication as a moral failure.

Our acceptance is most evident in our approach to reopening public schools for regular in-person classes—something districts in our area first attempted before many major districts in big blue cities did. Our public schools moved online from March 2020 through the end of the semester. But six months later, as the 2020–21 school year began, locals wanted schools reopened and didn’t care whether people in other places thought that was a careless gamble. We cobbled together safety equipment out of PVC pipe and shower curtains, put masks on our kids, procured hand sanitizer made by oil-field-service companies, and hoped for the best.

At the beginning of this school year, even as Delta surged temporarily, we persisted—this time taking down the improvised desk dividers and making masks optional even as our hospital put up a tent outside. That choice may strike some people as reckless. But I mean this as apolitically as possible: Removing mandatory masks from the classroom was the most significant factor in returning our kids to normalcy. Dismissing the practice as “no big deal” seems premature at best, given the limited data on its long-term effects on developing children and the likelihood that it is impeding communication between students and teachers. Parents can reasonably worry about the effects of a highly masked environment on children who have hearing loss or sensory-processing disorders or who could simply benefit from seeing their teacher’s mouth form th rather than ph in a phonics lesson.

I have kids in two elementary schools and volunteer in a third. Earlier in the pandemic, when teachers were saddled with the impossible job of teaching online and in person at the same time, many of them were understandably overwhelmed and quick to share their frustration. These days, discontent over in-person instruction is hard to detect. Teacher unions have negligible power in Texas; I’m sure that individual education professionals have a wide range of beliefs and preferences about COVID rules. However, as far as I can tell, few, if any, local teachers are calling for more virtual days or hybrid classrooms.

When the Delta wave threatened to close classrooms in the fall because of a lack of substitute teachers, parents, community members, and even district administrators stepped in to fill the gap, and we kept schools open. As Omicron surges, we’re all committed to doing the same. (It helps that our educators quarantine only if they test positive, not solely on the basis of classroom exposure.) To put it simply, our community has decided that school is essential. Imagine if, at any point in the pandemic, society had collectively decided that hospitals and grocery stores should close because they too are vectors for infection. Where would we be?

Our schools provide free COVID testing to staff and students with parent permission. We have vaccination incentives for staff and student vaccine clinics, but getting shots remains optional. We’re notified if our children might have been exposed to COVID through a close contact. In such cases, some parents keep their kids home to quarantine and monitor them for symptoms, but this year we are under no social pressure to do so. Most parents unapologetically send symptom-free children to school. And because classrooms aren’t abruptly being closed and quarantines aren’t mandated for people merely exposed to the virus, we parents aren’t scrambling to patch together last-minute child-care plans in order to go to work ourselves.

As a result, these days, our children’s lives are minimally disrupted by COVID. Our kids are not constantly reminded that they might be vectors of a deadly virus, moments away from unintentionally infecting vulnerable adults they love. They are not told that their birthday parties and holiday celebrations and sleepovers must be forgone for society’s greater good, fleeting childhood joy sacrificed indefinitely on the altar of COVID safety. Because the preservation of a normal childhood is at the top of our local priority list, our whole community benefits; knowing that the kids are okay makes it easier for the grown-ups to sleep at night. Is it true that our children could test positive? Might some of them develop long COVID, which remains largely mysterious to scientists? Yes and yes. But children might also suffer in a million other unspeakable ways, and because they are children, I want mine to spend as little time as possible thinking about this.

COVID is terrible and brutal. I have mourned with friends as they buried their parents and felt the anxiety that comes with a positive test result myself. I’ve sensed the exhaustion of friends who work in health care. And yet this reality is a little easier to bear out here because we still see one another smile in the grocery store. There’s no pressure to apologize if we get sick. We still get to pass out pizza at the fifth-grade class party. These can perhaps all be dismissed as small things, but what is a child’s life if not a series of beautiful small things?