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‘There's Not Any Good Choices’: Parents Of High-Risk Kids Struggle With Plans For The Coming School Year

A photo of elementary students wearing protective face masks and a little girl disinfecting her hands in the classroom.
Drazen Zigic
In late May, the state Legislature passed a law that prevents schools from issuing mask mandates.

Earlier this year, Ashley Anderson was excited to send her kids back to school in the fall. Last year, they’d been doing remote learning when there was a hybrid option, but it was tough.

“It was actually a real source of pain to have to Zoom into class and see everyone present and be unable to be present,” she said.

Anderson’s 10-year-old son was born with a tumor on his scalp. She said doctors have told her disease — like COVID-19 — can cause it to come back in the same spot or elsewhere in his body. Anderson is one of many parents of high-risk kids who’s unsure of how to handle the upcoming school year, which starts in a few weeks.

Things have changed since the spring when Anderson said she felt good about her kids going back to school in-person.

In late May, the state Legislature passed a law thatprevents schools from issuing mask mandates. Local health departments can issue them — with permission from the county legislative body, like a county commission. That hasn’t happened in Salt Lake County, where Anderson’s kids go.

Cases also started spiking around that time, and they’re still climbing.

“What do you do?” Anderson said. “Do you send them back? Because, you know, in the immediate sense they will be happier. Or do you know that the decision that you make now for more immediate happiness has very bad long-term consequences?”

The state health department is recommending that students and teachers wear masks. But Jessica Pyper — who’s 10-year-old son has Type 1 diabetes and goes to a Salt Lake City charter school — said it’s hard to know how many people will follow that advice.

One option she’s considering is to start off with a type of remote learning where she’s responsible for teaching him the bulk of the material. That option would allow him to stay at his current school.

“We're looking into maybe doing that for like the first couple of weeks to see what the mask usage is at his school,” Pyper said.

Another option is to send him to a virtual public school. But, because the goal is eventually to get her son back to a classroom, Pyper is worried switching schools temporarily would be really disruptive.

“There's not any good choices,” she said. “It’s really hard to know whether or not we're doing the right thing. It's really hard to know whether or not we're being too cautious or cautious enough.”

Pyper said as she makes the decision, she’ll also be monitoring case counts, which continue to worsen. State officials say a combination of the Delta variant and low vaccination rates are driving the surge. About 58% of people eligible for the vaccine are fully vaccinated.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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