Anyone worried about their kids wearing masks at school needs to hear our family’s story

Jennifer Malia
·8 min read
At least two primary schools have requested pupils where face masks when they return on 8 March (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
At least two primary schools have requested pupils where face masks when they return on 8 March (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

It started slowly with a sore throat. But a few days later, I felt like I got hit by a truck.

“My head feels like it’s going to explode,” I said to my husband.

The crushing headache was so intense that I worried my brain would bleed.

I spent most of the day lying in bed. It was exhausting to stand up. The repeated shaking with chills made me feel like I’d lost control of my body. I also had tightness in my chest and some shortness of breath. Luckily, I had an inhaler on hand from a previous case of acute bronchitis.

Since I was only seven weeks out from major shoulder surgery, I was already taking strong painkillers. But the debilitating muscle aches spread across my entire body. The inflammation raging through me likely caused adhesive capsulitis, commonly known as frozen shoulder, jeopardising the progress I had made on my rehabilitation.

Within a few days, my husband had a sore throat, headache, chills and body aches. We both had crushing headaches every day for an entire week. They were much more intense and longer-lasting than our usual chronic migraines. We both had strange and vivid dreams that kept us up at night.

“It’s your turn to feed them,” I said to my husband from the recliner.

We were the exhausted parents of three young kids battling Covid-19.

Over the summer, my husband and I made the hard decision that all parents of school-aged children were making: what to do about school. Ever since preschool, our kids had gone to a private elementary school in Virginia. In the middle of the summer, we were asked to sign a contract to commit to a whole school year of tuition so our children could keep their spots.

We signed it because we both work full time and the small classes were a good fit for our three neurodiverse kids, who have different combinations of autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. We were prepared to take the risk of sending them back to school five days per week during a pandemic.

I spent the summer teaching my kids how to wear masks. Buying them a variety of breathable ones with colourful patterns and cute designs was my attempt to find the silver lining.

“Your nose is sticking out,” my seven-year-old daughter said. It was hard to get the fit just right so my then-five-year-old son’s tiny nose would stay in the mask.

As an autistic woman with sensory issues, I found it difficult to wear a mask at first. But I knew exactly how to help my kids because of my own struggle with it. Over the summer, my kids started wearing masks for five minutes at a time and worked up to the equivalent of a school day.

When they started school after Labour Day, the Virginia governor’s mandate only required children aged ten and older to wear masks in indoor public spaces. (The governor updated the mask mandate in November, so now those five and older must wear one.)

“This mask with the unicorn will go perfectly with my outfit,” my eight-year-old daughter said while getting ready for the first day of school.

That morning, my husband took a photo of our masked kids on the porch to capture the reality of 2020.

But when they got to school, hardly anyone wore a mask. Only a few parents dropping off their kids at the front door had them. Most of my children’s classmates didn’t use them. Imagine being the only kid in a classroom wearing a mask.

“Did you wear your mask all day at school?” I asked.

“I only took it off to play basketball at recess,” my older daughter said.

I could see the fear in her eyes while she waited for my reaction.

“A teacher and my friends said it was okay,” she added.

How could I blame her? An adult encouraged her to do it. I made this a teaching moment for all my kids. We talked about how they could stand up for what they thought was right.

During the first week of school, my kids were uncomfortable in their classrooms. “I had to cover my face when a friend came near my desk during lunch without a mask on,” my older daughter said.

“My teacher leaves his mask around his chin a lot,” my younger daughter said.

“I’m sitting too close to other kids at lunch,” my son told me, while describing the large, round tables they use in the kindergarten classroom.

A month later, I got a message in our elementary school’s teacher-parent communication app that said a kid in my son’s kindergarten class had tested positive for Covid. It went on to explain that the school didn’t know the student had had a Covid-19 test the day before and came to school for a full day afterwards without knowing the results.

By the time I read this message, my whole family was likely infected. Four out of five of us ended up testing positive, including me, my husband, my son, and my older daughter. My younger daughter, who tested negative, was assumed to be positive with minor symptoms.

“Point to where it hurts,” I asked my son. He had a headache, sore throat, and stomachache. Both of my daughters had only a stomachache.

While the virus made it difficult for my husband and me to move around, it didn’t stop our kids from building Lego sets or riding their bikes in our backyard. I wouldn’t have even known they had the virus if I hadn’t asked about their symptoms.

I’m grateful that my kids had mild cases. But this is also the reason that it spread so easily within my family. We’re lucky to be survivors. Many other families have lost loved ones to this virus.

When a woman from the Virginia Department of Health called for contact tracing, I mentioned that my kids caught Covid from their elementary school. She asked me for the name of the school and put me on hold. “This school has a bigger problem than they know about,” she said. “It’s a hot spot.” And yet, the private school stayed open for face-to-face instruction.

I knew the risks of sending my kids back to school during a pandemic. But I trusted that the school would take precautions. I didn’t expect an optional mask policy or larger class sizes than the year before. Even after their positive cases, the school administration only highly recommended that children wore masks there. It makes me wonder exactly how many positive Covid cases in my community can be traced back to contact with the kids who go to this school.

The day before the presidential election, my older daughter brought home fact sheets about the candidates. Her third-grade class was preparing for a mock election.

“My friends are voting for Trump,” she said.

I cringed. That’s probably why so many of them didn’t wear masks to school, I thought. “Who are you voting for?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

I had protected her from the ugly truth of what was going on for too long. We talked about how Trump had failed to lead the nation in the fight against Covid, how many people die every day in the US from this virus, and how our own family suffered with it.

Despite the Virginia governor’s mandate requiring kids under five to wear masks, my kids say that some of their classmates still aren’t wearing them the right way or even at all. I believe them. On the parent-teacher communication app, my son’s kindergarten teacher posts photos of kids lined up in the hallways or gathering together as a group without masks on.

While my children do still attend this school, my husband and I aren’t planning to sign any more contracts or register them there after the academic year ends. We originally chose the school because it was a comfortable environment for our neurodiverse kids – but their response to Covid revealed that they failed to do all they could to make it a safe environment for our kids. We’ve decided to take our chances with the public schools nearby.

The pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. But I’m excited about the promise of new vaccines. And I’m hopeful that the next four years will be better with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in office. I feel safer already parenting my kids in the United States – and their masks will be staying firmly on their faces until scientists tell us otherwise.

Jen Malia is Associate Professor of English at Norfolk State University and the author of TooSticky! Sensory Issues with Autism. You can find her on her website at JenMalia.com and on Twitter at @jenmaliabooks