AUSTIN, Texas — When Bridget Wiedenmeyer learned Texas was banning mask mandates in public schools, she immediately worried about her 11-year-old daughter — who has a chronic lung condition but is too young to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
“There’s a large contingent of people who are like, ‘Well, only this teeny tiny percent of kids …. die of Covid.’ And I have an issue with that,” said the Austin mother, whose daughter frequently suffers from pneumonia.
“This notion that only a few kids will die — therefore we won’t make the rest wear a piece of cloth on their face — is mind-boggling to me.”
About 20 miles away, Teresa Ridenhour’s children celebrated when they learned they won’t be required to wear masks in school anymore.
“They were jumping up and down. ‘Can we burn our masks?'” recalled Ridenhour, who told them: “No, not yet.”
Decreasing Covid-19 numbers mean Texans should be able to enjoy more freedom from masks, Ridenhour said.
“I think we are to a point in this pandemic where everyone has to take control of their own health,” she said.
Across Texas, parents are rejoicing, criticizing or just trying to adjust to Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on public school mask mandates after June 4. It follows the authorization of a vaccine for kids age 12 to 15 and new federal guidance that anyone who’s vaccinated can largely go maskless indoors and outdoors.
Other states are following Texas’ lead. On Thursday, Iowa’s governor signed a bill that prevents mask mandates in K-12 schools. Utah’s governor is considering a similar one.
While it’s easy to denounce an opposing viewpoint, some parents’ reasons for supporting or opposing bans on mask mandates may be more nuanced than you think.
A mom who had ‘terrible’ Covid-19 doesn’t want mask mandates in schools
Ridenhour knows how badly Covid-19 can attack healthy people.
“I work out five to six days a week,” said the mother of two from Dripping Springs, about 20 miles west of Austin. “You think, ‘Oh well, I don’t have any other health problems, I’ll probably be fine.'”
But in February, both she and her parents got Covid-19 after visiting her brother.
“I got far sicker than them,” she said. “By Day 4, I was so sick. But I didn’t have the respiratory symptoms. I had extreme, widespread pain all over. I was hallucinating. It was terrible.”
So people may be surprised to hear that despite her monthlong illness, Ridenhour supports Abbott’s ban on schools requiring masks.
“That’s what people might think: ‘Well you’re just anti-mask.’ No, I’m not. I had Covid. And I had cancer years ago. And I understand. But I’m trying to think about this rationally,” she said.
When daily Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths were much higher, “I think there was a very real danger. We needed to wear masks for a period of time. We now have the vaccine.”
Of course, children under age 12 can’t get vaccinated against Covid-19 yet. But Ridenhour said she’s been monitoring Covid-19 dashboards from major school systems in her area.
“There’s been such a low rate of infection among school-age children, and the children who have gotten it have been so very mild,” she said.
Abbott made the right decision to allow students to go to school without masks after June 4, Ridenhour said.
“I think we’re past the worst of it,” she said. “It’s time to let them experience more of a ‘normal’ ability to socialize.”
Her daughters, ages 12 and 15, “were super excited” to learn they will no longer have to wear masks in school and will get to “see their friends’ faces and just be able to socialize normally,” Ridenhour said.
But even though her kids are now eligible for vaccines, Ridenhour — who said she is “not anti-vax” — wants to wait to see “longer-term data” on how the Covid-19 vaccine works in children before getting them shots.
For now, she’s comfortable with her daughters going back to school without masks or Covid-19 vaccines. But she said she supports other children or families who continue wearing masks.
“I would respect that 100%,” she said. “I would never say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, why are you wearing a mask?’ I don’t know their situation. But I don’t think it should be enforced.”
A parent said she’s counting on masks to help protect her child’s life
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Wiedenmeyer’s younger daughter was a frequent visitor to the ER.
Her 11-year-old has a lung condition that makes her susceptible to frequent pneumonia. But most people wouldn’t know by looking at her.
“She’s otherwise super healthy, strong. Everyone’s really shocked when she has to have an inhaler after she gets a cold,” the mother from Austin said.
“At school, she can’t administer her own medication, but she can use her pulse oximeter in class. And if her blood oxygen drops, then her teacher can call me. It can happen so quickly.”
Wiedenmeyer said her daughter is one of many children who may look and seem healthy but is actually at high risk of severe disease if they catch coronavirus. Some children and their parents might not even know it.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding out there in terms of the volume of kids for whom this applies,” she said.
“When Abbott made this announcement, my heart dropped.”
Her older daughter is 15 and vaccinated. But she’s worried about getting a breakthrough infection from an unmasked classmate and bringing it home.
“She’s terrified of contracting Covid and accidentally killing her sister,” Wiedenmeyer said.
“I understand that it’s so important to go (to school) in person. But this banning of (mask) mandates — why? It is just to win political points. It makes no sense.”
She cited the American Academy of Pediatrics, which says unvaccinated children over 2 should keep wearing masks in public places.
Because children under age 12 can’t get vaccinated yet, “masks are still an important way to protect them,” Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, chair of the AAP’s Committee on Infectious Diseases, wrote in an article published on the AAP’s HealthyChildren.org website.
“Until everyone can be protected with the vaccine, masks can keep your family safe and healthy,” Maldonado wrote.
Wiedenmeyer said Texas’ ban on mask mandates not only contradicts the AAP’s guidance — it also diminishes the importance of wearing masks.
“It takes the people who might have been on the fence and makes them think, ‘Oh, well it must be safe because Gov. Abbott said so.’ And that’s just not the case.”
She’s also concerned that kids will be deterred from wearing masks for fear of bullying or harassment. It’s a concern shared by others in online parent forums, she said.
Since younger children can’t get vaccinated yet, Wiedenmeyer said it’s just too early to ban schools from requiring masks.
And she doesn’t understand staunch opposition to mask mandates. After all, the government has plenty of other mandates to help ensure public safety.
“I have to go every year and have my car inspected. Why? Because the government said I have to,” Wiedenmeyer said. “I can’t decide how much I can drink and then go drive — the government says I can’t because it could hurt other people.”
She said Abbott’s decision doesn’t just put her daughter at risk. It could also fuel more coronavirus cases and thus an increase in MIS-C cases, as well as the potential for vaccine-resistant variants to develop.
MIS-C, or multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, is a rare but potentially serious condition that can happen in children weeks after a Covid-19 infection. Even children who didn’t have any symptoms from Covid-19 can later end up hospitalized with MIS-C.
And many doctors worry that as coronavirus keeps spreading — with or without symptoms — it could lead to variant strains of the virus that may evade current vaccines.
Kids are suffering from problems aside from the virus, a mom says
Cortney Scheffler and her 12-year-old daughter celebrated Abbott’s ban on schools requiring face masks.
“My daughter is very relieved and glad that she will be able to breath comfortably without the constant stress from a mask,” the mother from Sanger said.
“The people of Texas and the United States for that matter should have the right to choose to wear a mask or to not,” she said.
“It should be up to the parents not a school board, superintendent or anyone else. No one is being told they are not allowed to wear a mask, but it will be a personal choice.”
But even without a vaccine or mask at school, Scheffler said she’s not too worried about her daughter and coronavirus.
“I am more concerned with the (risk of) suicide and mental decline for children than I am any virus,” she said.
“I have seen a drastic change in my daughter, family and friends since Covid has happened. When Covid hit, my daughter went into a very heavy depression, which made her grades slip.”
Scheffler’s concern is shared by many parents. Pediatricians say social isolation has had a significant impact on children during this pandemic.
A parent says Abbott’s decision could backfire by next school year
Melissa Pleasant said she wants her children to go back to school on time next school year. But she worries Abbott’s decision might prevent that from happening.
“My hesitation is that he’s making these decisions prematurely,” said Pleasant, a mother of two in the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District.
“We’re just getting to the beginning of summer. Why don’t we wait and see how kids do at summer camp and see how things go and maybe make the decision in August, instead of making it preemptively now, not knowing where we’re going to be in August?”
If the decision were up to her, Pleasant said she would wait and monitor Covid-19 trends this summer before possibly lifting mask mandates for next school year.
“I would play it by ear. But I’m happy with the mask guidance because I like that they’re not getting colds of any kind,” she said. “It helps so I don’t have to take off work because my kids are sick. My kids don’t have to miss school because they got sick. But mostly I think that would be following the science.”
And just like Wiedenmeyer, Pleasant is concerned about long-term Covid-19 complications in children.
“You don’t have to die necessarily. … We’re still learning about the long-term effects for children,” she said.
Pleasant said she will feel much better when young children can get vaccinated. Her 10-year-old daughter is looking forward to it.
“When my husband and I got vaccinated, she said she was jealous because she wished she could be vaccinated. And she is petrified of getting shots. But she’d be fine getting a shot if she can avoid getting coronavirus.”