Nicole Riggs, a mom of two in West Des Moines, really hoped her 8-year-old son’s school, Hillside Elementary, would offer virtual classes for this school year.
They did last year and Riggs said it worked well. Her son wanted a virtual option too so he could protect his vulnerable family members, including his sister.
“We were really glad that there was going to be a virtual option last year because I didn’t know what else we would do,” Riggs said.
Their family is especially sensitive to the issue because her grandfather died of COVID-19 in May 2020, and both of her children had a respiratory virus as infants and have been affected since. Both also had the flu in winter 2019.
But there wasn’t enough interest in having virtual school for this upcoming year, and though Riggs tried to open-enroll her son in schools that offered virtual options, she didn’t qualify.
Riggs said she doesn’t know what to do except keep her eyes open and hope for the best.
“We’re weighing the options of what we’re going to do,” Riggs said. “If we’re going to send him and hope that he keeps the mask on and doesn’t cave to peer pressure.”
She’s not alone.
In Facebook groups of educators and parents, dozens of parents are discussing how to safely send their children to school, asking how other parents plan to keep them wearing masks, and questioning whether they’re going to return to in-person school at all. Most are at a loss for how to go forward.
A more infectious variant of COVID-19 is dominant in Iowa and the wider United States, and it primarily affects the unvaccinated, a population largely made up of young people and children.
Delta is 50-60 percent more transmissible, and combined with relaxed masking and distancing measures, state health officials said it’s likely more children will be infected.
While studies have shown that healthy children aren’t as vulnerable to serious illness, children with medical conditions and weakened immune systems are. And all children can still get infected and they can still spread it to the adults around them.
There’s also the trouble that children under 12 aren’t approved yet for vaccines, and so are wide open to infection.
In a last-minute move at the end of May, the Legislature hastily passed and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed late at night a bill banning schools from mandating masks for students and faculty the next day. The ban applies to public and accredited private schools.
Even earlier, a law passed that required all schools in the state to offer full-time, in-person learning, though they could apply for waivers if case rates in their communities were high enough.
Patty Considine, a mom in Sioux City, has put her trust in the school. Her 8-year-old son goes to Holy Cross School, a private school connected to Bishop Heelan Catholic Schools.
“They just did whatever they could to make sure the kids were learning and still growing and staying in school,” she said. “I know they worked super hard and I think they just did an amazing job.”
Her whole family was exposed to and came down with mild COVID cases in December 2020, and she said for the three days her son’s quarantine overlapped school, Holy Cross worked to make sure he had full access to his lessons.
Considine said she’ll send her son back this year with a mask, but her concern is still mild.
Last year, Heelan sent out regular updates on the number of cases and notified parents about contacts, and had measures like plastic shields, extra cleaning, spaced-out desks, and masking in place.
Considine doesn’t know what exactly they’re doing for this year, but she trusts the administration.
“I really trust in the school to set the parameters of what we need to do,” she said. “And you know, well, we’ll take all the precautions that we need to take.”
One Iowa parent has started a petition condemning the mask mandate ban. As of Monday morning, it had 1,910 signatures in its goal for 2,500, surpassing its original 1,500 goal. Some others are reaching out to their local officials urging masks.
Parents’ concern is backed up by plenty of emerging data and research.
Outbreaks at summer camps across the country have made headlines, including Riverside Lutheran Bible Camp near Story City, where children were sent home because of positive cases.
For the past several weeks, Blank Children’s Hospital has been full—or close to it—with respiratory illnesses, though not largely due to COVID-19. Pediatricians have been recommending everyone, vaccinated or not, wear masks this fall.
The American Academy of Pediatrics officially announced that recommendation on July 19.
Lori VanLo, a mom of three in West Des Moines, said she’s worried about the upcoming school year, but not enough to keep her children home.
One is 13 years old and has been vaccinated, and her others are ages 4 and 11. VanLo recognizes things can change between now and the end of August when her children start school, so they’ll keep watching.
“My hope right now is maybe vaccines could come out maybe sometime in August and we could at least get a first dose in around school time starting,” VanLo said. “But I mean, it’ll be hard to have it that fast I’m sure.”
Vaccines have recently been approved for children ages 12-17, and the Food and Drug Administration has said vaccines for children between 5 and 12 could be available this winter.
VanLo’s older children did school online last year. She said they did well, but she won’t pursue other online options now that their school, Hillside Elementary, isn’t offering them.
“We’re going to try our best,” she said. “I’ll get the quality masks that hopefully give my kids at least a little protection and hope that they do OK with them.”
VanLo liked the way West Des Moines Schools handled the pandemic. There was a mask mandate, extra cleaning and parents had the choice to do what they were comfortable with.
Now, the ban on mask mandates makes everything tricky. VanLo said she noticed everyone was laxer after the mandate was gone. But she doesn’t see better options for her relatively low-risk family.
“We’re just going to hold out and just hope for the best and take all the precautions we can as a family,” she said. “And I mean, if it gets really bad, I don’t have a problem pulling my kids out. And being like, ‘You need to handle this before I send my kids back.’
“It really sucks for parents right now because we don’t have very many safety nets.”
by Nikoel Hytrek