Returning to Schools Without Mask and Vaccine Mandates, Moms Must Choose: Their Jobs, or Their Kids’ Health

As schools reopen in-person, parents in states and localities without mask and vaccine mandates—particularly Black and low-income moms—bear the brunt.

A group of students wait to have their temperatures checked before entering an elementary school in Washington D.C. (Allison Shelley / EDUimages)

Despite children under 12 still being unable to get vaccinated and the Delta variant surging across the country, most schools are opting to reopen in-person classes this month.

In states and localities without mask mandates for students, teachers or staff, youth are at an even higher risk of contracting COVID and transmitting it to vulnerable family members, and as children get sick, parents will be forced to leave their jobs to stay home. In two-parent heterosexual households, data shows mothers are still ten times more likely than fathers to stay home with a sick child. For moms who are primary or sole caregivers, this creates an acute crisis.

Of course, a second year of remote schooling also presents challenges and its own set of gendered impacts—not only for children, but for the caregiver who must stay home with them. During the first year of the pandemic, as schools and day care centers closed, a disproportionate number of women left the workforce in order to take on child care and schooling responsibilities—averaging 15 hours more than dads per week. 

Also complicating this year’s back to school are low vaccination rates and rampant vaccine misinformation, leading to increased hesitancy and distrust of COVID vaccines. Even though the FDA has now granted the Pfizer vaccine full approval, just over half (52 percent) of Americans are fully vaccinated. For many, it can be hard to tell if sources are providing accurate scientific information or peddling an anti-vax agenda, contributing to uncertainty and fear surrounding the vaccines. 

In particular, people of color tend to be more hesitant than white Americans to receive the vaccine—and along with women and low-income people, they are also more likely to face logistical problems preventing them from accessing it. Negative experiences with racism and sexism from medical professionals may be contributing to the hesitancy, as well as gendered misinformation like false allegations of the vaccines affecting fertility. (Both the CDC and ACOG are now actively encouraging people who are pregnant or breastfeeding to get vaccinated).

I’esha (last name withheld)—a pregnant mother of two and recipient of guaranteed income from Magnolia Mother’s Trust—says she was hesitant at first about getting vaccinated during her pregnancy:

“I was very hesitant about the vaccine initially, but I got my first Pfizer shot a few weeks ago. And then I’ll get my second shot next week, right before I deliver my baby. I made the choice to get it because my doctor had a patient who was not vaccinated and contracted COVID, and it really complicated her delivery. I decided getting the vaccine was worth any potential risk to protect me and my baby from getting sick.”

Now, as schools scramble to deal with the Delta variant, moms—especially in districts lacking mask and vaccine mandates—are being forced to make a tough choice: Send their kids to school, knowing that they are likely to be exposed to unvaccinated students, teachers and adults; or continue remote schooling, which contributes to financial stress and inequities. 

“I joke that I’m excited for them to go back to school, because my power bill when they started doing remote school went way up since they were home all the time,” I’esha wrote in Ms. “But really I am scared about the Delta variant, and the high rates here in Mississippi and how the virus is affecting children. I would rather pay a high power bill than have them at school, honestly. But they are required to be back in school, even though I would love for them to continue to be schooled virtually.” (Mississippi now ranks second in the country—behind New Jersey—for most COVID deaths per capita.)

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education issued a formal warning to leaders in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah—all states with statewide bans on mask mandates. The department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating whether their bans are discriminatory against students with disabilities, who may be more at risk from COVID-19.

Virtual schooling comes with its own built-in inequities for low-income students and students of color, setting them back in terms of curriculum and increasing existing education disparities. On average, K-12 students are now five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. But majority Black schools are six months behind and low-income schools are seven. One analysis suggests that this learning gap may result in students earning $49,000 to $61,000 less over their lifetime.

During the 2020-21 school year, as both teachers and kids struggled to adjust to virtual schooling, moms disproportionately carried the burden of helping their kids learn. Virtual classes added to their responsibilities at home—leading some moms, like Chephirah, to leave the workforce permanently to ensure their children could still be successful at school. 

“The pandemic really hurt my ability to work,” she wrote. “I just couldn’t get enough hours. I was getting maybe two days a week, then not getting anything for a week, or I’d get shifts that were just two or three hours. It wasn’t enough to pay the bills and it was also during the pandemic, so I decided it was just better to stay at home with my daughter since she was doing online school. She really had a hard time with switching to virtual learning; she is much better and happier doing face-to-face in the classroom.”

I’esha and Johnnie are two writers from Ms.’s Front and Center series, highlighting the success of Springboard to Opportunities’ Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which this year will give $1,000 per month for 12 months to 100 families headed by Black women living in federally subsidized housing.
(Art by Brandi Phipps)

Similarly, Johnnie was forced to make the tough decision to leave her job in order to keep her family safe:

“When the pandemic first hit, I was working at Koch Foods as an office clerk. It was stressful during the pandemic, because drivers were coming from all over the country and we stayed open because the food service industry were deemed essential workers. I ended up leaving my job because it was not safe and my daughter was not able to continue with school without my help. If I could’ve had somewhere to take her where she could get help with her online school, then that would’ve allowed me to keep my job. But I didn’t have any options, so I had to quit my job to help my baby. I want her to have an education and I couldn’t let her fall behind.”

For families who dealt with the repercussions of remote schooling last year, programs like the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which provides $1,000 per month in guaranteed income to Black women-led households living in extreme poverty, have made a huge difference. Guaranteed income involves payments directed to specific groups, like women living in poverty, in order to address economic inequities. 

During the pandemic and beyond, guaranteed income can help impacted communities overcome economic issues caused by systemic racism and sexism, and give low-income women the ability to set themselves and their children up for success. Johnnie explains how a federal guaranteed income policy would make a huge difference for working moms:

“During the pandemic, it was really hard for me because it was mandatory for me to go to work, but then my daughter was home from school and I didn’t have anyone to be there to help her. I also didn’t have internet at home, so I had to pay to get that so that she could do her school work online.

“If I would’ve had some assistance from my employer, I also wouldn’t have been behind on my rent. I really think the government needs to have some kind of program to make sure that essential workers are taken care of if there’s another pandemic. I really just think that employers and the government need to be prepared better for something like this—have supplies, have support programs, have a plan in place.”

As schools reopen, combating vaccine misinformation is essential to keep families safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants. But vaccinations on their own are not enough to help the country fully recover from the pandemic. The past year of virtual schooling will have a lasting impact—for the women leaving the workforce in droves, kids falling behind in school and families forced to juggle work, child care and household tasks with lowered incomes. 

Instead of continuing to force low-income moms to choose between putting their children’s health at risk or being forced to leave the workforce, federal policies like guaranteed income can provide a financial cushion that empowers recipients to make decisions not out of life or death desperation, but instead to protect their health, support their children’s education and do what’s best for their families in their specific circumstances.

A groundbreaking new series in Ms., Front and Center offers first-person accounts of Black women living in extreme poverty, who are taking part in the Magnolia Mother’s Trust which gives recipients a guaranteed income of $1,000 per month for 12 months. In Front and Center, these mothers speak on their struggles, their children, their work, their relationships, and their dreams for the future, and how a federal guaranteed income program could change their lives.

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Katie Fleischer (she/they) is a Ms. editorial assistant working on the Front and Center series and Keeping Score.