The Pandemic 3 Years Later: Are Parents Misrepresenting COVID-19 Status When Sending Kids To School?

A new study shows parents haven't always been truthful when it comes to sharing whether their child had COVID, but we get why.

A kid blows his nose at school

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March 11, 2023 marked three years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The pandemic has impacted people in so many different ways—some in tragic and heartbreaking ways. But when it comes to many parents, the past three years have been a time of intense exhaustion, fear, frustration, and burnout. Parenting has always been hard enough, but adding a pandemic pushed many of us to a breaking point.

That's part of why I wasn't too terribly surprised when I saw a new study published in JAMA that found many parents haven't always told the truth about their kids' COVID status and didn't always follow quarantine rules when their kids were positive. Personally, I have been a stickler at testing my kids for every sniffle and keeping them away from others until I knew they were negative. But I also can understand why parents weren't too keen on following these rules to a tee or weren't always able to because of work, child care, or other family obligations.

As we mark three years since the pandemic began, we reached out to experts to unpack this latest study, and to get a sense of where parents are at now when it comes to things like testing and quarantining. We also asked them to help us understand what the future looks like for parents in terms of testing, keeping our kids home from school, and more.

Why Parents Weren't Always Truthful About COVID

The JAMA study looked at a pool of 1733 parents during the period of December 8-23, 2021. You might recall this period was at the height of the first omicron wave, where infections were soaring and many schools were being closed...again. The researchers found that during that time, about 25% of parents misrepresented their child's COVID status.

The most common behavior researchers reported was that parents didn't always tell someone who spent time with their child that their child may have been exposed to COVID or was COVID-positive. Another prevalent behavior was not complying with COVID quarantine rules. According to the study, the main reasons parents gave for this non-compliance were their own personal freedom, wanting their child to have a more normal life, and work or home responsibilities.

Where Parents Are Now, Three Years In

This study is from data collected in 2021, which honestly feels like a lifetime ago when it comes to the pandemic. Now, infections are lower, vaccines are widely available, and the majority of U.S. children have been infected with COVID. So where are parents these days when it comes to adhering to public health measures?

Zachary Hoy, M.D., a board-certified pediatric infectious disease specialist at Pediatrix Medical Group, shared a sense of what he's been seeing on the ground. Parents have grown accustomed to dealing with COVID and COVID symptoms over the past three years, he says. "Kids are not being tested for every sniffle," Dr. Hoy shares. "The main testing I see occurs in the ER if kids have significant symptoms or are going to be admitted to the hospital. I don't see as many home tests being done."

On the other hand, Dr. Hoy says he thinks parents by and large are still reporting positive COVID results to schools and adhering to quarantine rules. "The parents I have seen in our infectious disease clinic and the hospital have reported appropriate quarantine practices, even the ones I have seen recently," he says.

Bernadette Boden-Albala, DrPH, MPH, the director and founding dean of the program in public health at the University of California, Irvine, says pandemic fatigue has made parents more and more reluctant to test their children if they have symptoms. Many parents are wary of the complicated school policies they have to follow should their child test positive for COVID—let alone the disruptions to work and family life that happen as a result.

"A positive test continues to disrupt schedules," says Dr. Boden-Albala. "In addition, this past winter season the flu, RSV, and norovirus have impacted our communities, especially families with children, so parents may not feel inclined to test for every sniffle as they might not assume it is COVID."

Parental Burnout and Lack of Support

The JAMA study cited parents valuing personal freedom and wanting their children to have a more normal life as some of the reasons for parents being less than truthful about COVID testing and quarantining. But Sarah Oreck, M.D., MS, a reproductive psychiatrist and co-founder and CEO ofMAVIDA Health, says the core issues here are parental burnout, coupled with a lack of societal support for parents.

In her practice working with new parents, she sees a growing reluctance to comply with COVID public health measures like testing. This is mostly because asking the question as to whether or not your child has COVID sometimes means getting information that parents would rather not have to deal with. Missing social events, having to tell others that they may have been exposed, and missing multiple days of school—these have all taken a toll on parents, according to Dr. Oreck.

"I think we're seeing significant parental burnout since the pandemic with the increased cost of childcare, decreased availability of childcare, and parents trying to balance demanding jobs (that may now be requiring days in the office) and parenthood," she says. "I ultimately think that as a community and a country, we don't provide enough support for parents which makes it hard to focus on public health measures that simply pile on and add more burden to already overwhelmed parents."

Sarah Oreck, M.D., MS

As a community and a country, we don't provide enough support for parents which makes it hard to focus on public health measures that simply pile on and add more burden to already overwhelmed parents.

— Sarah Oreck, M.D., MS

What's A Reasonable Approach to Take With COVID Testing Right Now?

President Biden will end the COVID public health emergency in May. With that—along with growing pandemic fatigue—many parents are wondering what the future looks like in terms of things like testing, quarantining, and COVID school policies.

Dr. Hoy doesn't think testing kids is something that should be a thing of the past just yet, especially if you suspect they might have COVID. "It's reasonable to test symptomatic children with a known COVID exposure," he says.

As for quarantine guidance, he thinks schools should continue following CDC guidelines, which currently recommend that children quarantine if they are COVID-positive. This includes staying home for five days and then wearing a mask in public settings for an additional five days. The CDC no longer recommends quarantining school kids after exposure, but still urges testing if you know you were exposed.

At the same time, Dr. Hoy says, schools should feel free to make tweaks for their particular situation. "Each school can make decisions on appropriate quarantine guidance because there are variables such as age and school activities that can affect the CDC quarantine measures," he says.

Of course, as time goes on, CDC school guidelines may change as well—the current CDC guidelines were updated at the start of the 2022-23 school year and may be updated again each year. I think if there's one thing we can count on when it comes to COVID, it's that things are and will be constantly changing. And if there's one thing that we parents have learned over the past three years, it's how to roll with these changes as best as we can...and sometimes by the skin of our teeth.

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  1. Levy AG, Thorpe A, Scherer LD, et al. Parental nonadherence to health policy recommendations for prevention of covid-19 transmission among childrenJAMA Netw Open. 2023

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