On the first day of school last week, Kelly Carothers picked up her 5-year-old twins from the bus stop and noticed that the kids weren’t wearing their masks.
“It’s hot on the bus,” they explained, “and no one else was wearing one.”
She asked if they had worn them throughout the school day. “Well,” they said, “sometimes.”
The incident confirmed Carothers’s worst fears about this school year. Public-school students in her Florida county, Hillsborough, are technically required to wear masks to school. But in an attempt to please everyone, parents may opt their kids out of mask wearing by signing a form. Masks also remain optional for teachers. According to Carothers, some of the parents in her kids’ classes have signed the mask waiver, and their kids roam around blissfully mask-free.
That’s concerning, because only about half the people who are eligible for vaccines in the county are fully vaccinated, and COVID-19 is spreading widely in Florida. “The kids are sitting ducks,” Carothers told me. Carothers struggles to get her son in particular to wear his mask when other kids don’t. “I just feel like it’s all but inevitable that he’s going to get COVID.” So far, more than 500 students in the district have tested positive for COVID-19 this month. Nearly 5,600 students in the district, the seventh largest in the nation, were in isolation or quarantine as of Monday, prompting the school board to schedule an emergency meeting later today. (In response to a request for comment, a school-district spokesperson said, “Students are required to wear masks at school and on the bus, unless a parent fills out an opt-out form. We, as well as all other school districts in Florida, must follow Governor Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order that preserves a parent’s right to choose when it comes to whether their child will wear a mask to school, and also prohibits school districts from issuing blanket mask mandates.”)
Carothers considered homeschooling, but neither she nor her husband can quit their jobs. And she feels that her kids need the socializing thrum of public school. So instead, the kids don’t go to restaurants. They don’t go to movie theaters. They wear masks in public, even though people have yelled at Carothers for being a “child abuser” as a result. On school days, as she sends her twins off to a building filled with other humans and their mucous membranes, she has tried to push past her own memories of getting COVID-19 in December.
For parents like Carothers, this is the most stressful back-to-school season ever. Right now, many parents feel they face a set of impossible choices: Many districts don’t have a virtual-school option. They aren’t mandating that students wear masks. And they are in areas where very few people are vaccinated or wearing masks regularly.
Unvaccinated parents in these communities might pass COVID-19 to their kids. If they’re unmasked, kids might spread it to one another, and possibly to their own parents. Some vaccinated parents might even be willing to take that risk—except for the fact that kids under 12 can’t be vaccinated yet. In Michigan, a man named Dave has been buying hundreds of child-size N95 masks in preparation for his 6-year-old to return to a school without a mask mandate. “When I read the announcement from the principal that they were not going to require masks,” he told me, “I was almost beside myself.” (He requested I not use his full name, because he doesn’t want to criticize his son’s school publicly.)
Though the overall risk that children will be hospitalized or killed by COVID-19 remains low, the Delta variant is more transmissible, and it has been sending more children into pediatric wards in recent weeks. Because children are one of the few populations that are still not able to be vaccinated, kids now make up almost a fifth of all total COVID-19 infections, as my colleague Katherine J. Wu reported last week.
Even parents whose kids are vaccinated feel uneasy. In Mason, Michigan, where 55 percent of people over 12 are vaccinated, Amy Lark plans to drive her vaccinated 13-year-old to school instead of letting her take the bus. Lark has several chronic illnesses, and she’s worried that her daughter could catch the disease at school, where there is no mask mandate, and bring it home.
Most of the parents I talked with realize that their kids will probably be fine: Fewer than 400 kids have died of COVID-19 so far. They hope and pray that their fears are not warranted. But after more than a year of screaming headlines about the threat of COVID-19, it’s hard to shelve those worries and send your little one into the hot zone with a lunch box and a wet wipe. “Human perception dictates fears, not rationality,” says Alan Kazdin, a child psychologist at Yale. “Our fears do not rely on the data. They rely on our perception of danger, our perception of the consequences.” This is why people fear shark attacks more than car accidents.
Still, the risk of COVID-19 transmission is undeniably reduced when everyone is masked. The anti-mandate crowd frames masks as an issue of “parents’ choice,” but child psychology being what it is, kids are unlikely to wear masks unless everyone else is doing so. A man named Kyle in Iowa told me that his 15-year-old was bullied last year for wearing a mask to school. (I am only using his first name to avoid jeopardizing his wife’s job.) Kids said the only reason his daughter was wearing one was because she was a “Democrat who created the fake disease.”
Parents in politically mixed or conservative communities have few options other than to mask their own children and hope for the best. Several governors have banned mask mandates, and though some localities have successfully challenged those bans in court, not all have done so. Though most parents endorse mask mandates for kids, Republicans are much less likely to support such mandates than Democrats are. In a recent Atlantic/Leger poll, Biden voters were much more likely than Trump voters to say both that they are currently wearing masks indoors and that kids should, too. Just 28 percent of Trump voters said they thought kids under 12 should have to wear masks in schools, compared with 84 percent of Biden voters.
Whenever masks come up, dull school-board meetings have transformed into primal-scream gatherings for cooped-up internet MDs. Videos circulating online show anti-mask parents shouting at school-board members, crying, and wielding signs that say fear is the true virus. People have held up pictures of supposed mask bacteria; people have randomly yelled about “discrimination” and “child abuse”; people have been escorted out of board meetings. A Wisconsin reporter dryly noted that “audience members often interrupted the very speaker they were cheering for.” Kazdin, the psychologist, says anti-maskers are exhibiting “reactance,” an irrationally defiant response to being told what to do.
COVID-19 precautions overlap with partisanship, to the extent that some pro-mask parents refused to tell me their political affiliation in an effort to avoid inflaming things further. Republican Representative Madison Cawthorn made an appearance at one recent school-board meeting in North Carolina, claiming that “woke, liberal government officials” are a bigger threat to children than COVID-19. In a parking lot in Franklin, Tennessee, angry parents shouted “We will not comply” and harassed medical professionals who spoke in favor of masks. “You will never be allowed in public again!” one man screamed. Last week, a California parent allegedly physically attacked a teacher over the school’s mask rules.
Pro-mask parents have staged protests too, of course. But some have thrown up their hands and pulled their kids out of school. In Texas, homeschooling was already on the rise prior to this year. In 2020, the Texas Home School Coalition received a record 1,100 calls and emails from interested parents in one week. This year, interest in homeschooling has only grown. “Last week, we hit 2,200” calls and emails, Jeremy Newman, the director of public policy at the coalition, told me recently. “It’s double the highest we ever had in 2020.” Newman said the parents are motivated by a mix of reasons: Some don’t want their kids to face more COVID-19 restrictions in public schools, but others are worried their kids’ schools aren’t being careful enough. “There are certainly a lot of families who tell us that they would never have considered homeschooling, but now they’re going to do it,” Newman said. The trend is similar nationally: The membership of the Home School Legal Defense Association, the largest national homeschooling organization, grew from 84,439 in 2019 to 105,000 this year.
Many parents I spoke with considered homeschooling but didn’t want to quit their jobs or yank their kids away from their friends. Some are instead begging their neighbors to get vaccinated. Carothers nagged her nanny to get the jab. In Alabama, a man named Will, who asked that I don’t use his full name to avoid blowback at work, told me he’s still imploring a hesitant friend who is waiting for full FDA approval. “Are you gonna get it after it’s FDA-approved or is there gonna be a new reason?” he wondered.
Others are taking even more drastic measures. Pranish Kantesaria, a doctor and pharmacist in the Austin area, told me he offended his daughter’s second-grade teacher when he asked whether she was vaccinated and whether she’d be encouraging mask use in the classroom. Though the school moved his daughter to a new classroom, Kantesaria is now looking to “flee the state,” as he puts it, to a place that takes COVID-19 more seriously. He pointed me to a joke he saw on Twitter: “You can live in a place that has affordable housing, warm weather, or a government that cares whether you live or die. Pick two.”
In the absence of mask mandates, Kazdin recommends another tool of psychology that might help ease these tensions. Schools could try telling students that although masks are not required, the majority of students will be wearing them. Facts, reason, and rules aren’t very persuasive, he says, but social norms are. Teens know it as one of the most powerful forces in the world: peer pressure.