I live in Florida, a state with no mask mandate, and sending my four kids back to school is keeping me up at night.

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An image of a mask on a school locker.
Credit: Getty Images.

Who remembers a time not so long ago when sending kids off to school was a joyous occasion? Sure, you felt jittery about whether they'd like their teachers, get along with other kids, find the lunchroom okay, or, gulp, pick up lice. But in general, sending 'em out the door with a brand-new lunch box and sneakers, fresh binder, and a clean shirt, called for a photo op, and a mini-celebration that you'd conquered the school supply list. Meanwhile, the day stretched out ahead of you with thoughts of a quiet coffee, and an uninterrupted shower.

Today felt very different when my four children, ages 3, 8, 10, and 13, started school in a state with no mask mandate amid a global pandemic. Our Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, has banned mask mandates, making it unlawful for schools to enforce the wearing of face coverings, which instead, are "strongly encouraged" where we live, but not required. This, as COVID-19 cases in Florida surge, making national headlines, and giving parents like me a reason to lose sleep at night.

Early this morning, watching my oldest get on the middle school bus should have felt exciting. My baby's last year of middle school! Instead, I battled pangs of fear as I watched the big, yellow clunker head out of our community. She's vaccinated, which I thought would give me confidence heading into the new school year. But with recent CDC data showing even fully-vaccinated individuals can get infected—and spread the virus—I felt queasy all day. My husband and I asked her to wear a mask in accordance with the latest CDC recommendations, but the truth is, she's 13. And I get it—who wants to wear a face mask when you're 13? The reality is, she'll likely do what her friends do, and remember, the teachers can't force her to mask up.

Next to leave the house were my elementary school-aged kids. At orientation, many families skipped masks, while others, like us, wore them dutifully. Since my younger kids aren't old enough to get vaccinated yet, they know our rule is to mask, and thankfully, they don't fight me. Meanwhile, some teachers were even unmasked—and you can't ask if they're vaccinated, nor does our school district require teachers to get the potentially life-saving pokes. The good news? One of my children's teachers had parents fill out a form stipulating if we want our little ones to wear masks, with the promise our wishes would be enforced in class.

Finally, my smallest school-bound kiddo headed off to preschool. Since the facility is private, teachers are required to wear masks, but not to get vaccinated. Kids 5 and under are not required to wear masks, though, which I'll admit makes sense to me as the mom of a toddler. Sometimes he won't agree to eat dinner, let alone wear a mask for three hours straight! Sadly, worrying will come with the territory during his first year at school—and no, not just that he'll suffer a potty accident!

All in all, the circumstances under which we are sending the most precious people in the world off to school are far from ideal. And how are we here again? Except unlike last year, I'm anxious that with no mask mandate even in our high-transmission area, it'll be even harder to protect my family. This is especially true since there is no remote option in our district—unlike last year. To be fair, I strongly feel kids can't go another year without in-person learning, and experts agree school should be considered essential, even as the pandemic rages on.

Bottom line: I won't be sleeping easy anytime soon, and anxiety is eating me up during my waking hours, too. My only comfort is that statistics say kids are unlikely to get very sick with COVID, but you still hear scary stories of severe cases. And it's hard not to worry since you can never escape pandemic chatter, from online headlines to talk in the school drop-off line. I don't often get a mental break, and with the reading into every cough and sniffle—it's exhausting!

Who I feel the worst for is the kids, though. I long for simpler days when the most difficult aspect of starting a new school year was deciding whether to buy Goldfish or mini-pretzels in bulk for snack time. But this is their childhood. A final consolation is that we are definitely not alone in dealing with this, with families from states from Idaho to Georgia also contending with no mask mandate, as another not-normal school year gets off the ground.