New school year, new worries

For children too young to be vaccines yet, masks are their only defence

For the second year in a row, schools across Nova Scotia will be reopening with a mask mandate — but, unfortunately, it may not last for long.

With the province scheduled to hit Phase 5 as early as Sept. 15, barely one week into the 2021/2022 school year, I’m worried about what a mask-free world is going to look like for our children under 12.

I know, I know — the vaccine wasn’t even available to most parents of school-aged children until the last school year was almost over. (My husband and I had our first doses May 19, and second doses June 28.) Since being vaccinated wasn’t an option during much of the last school year, it didn’t seem as terrifying to have all these unvaccinated children (and adults) walking around, interacting with each other.

But now that vaccines are here, available for everyone except our children under 12, the thought of sending them off to school unprotected is unnerving. Combined with potentially removing face mask requirements one week in, and you’ve got a perfect storm for worried, anxious parents.

FACE MASKS FOR KIDS UNDER 12

True, I could “force” my kids to wear masks at school even when they’re not required. But I can just imagine how well that would go over. 

“My friends’ parents don’t make them wear masks!” Well, just because your friends jump off a bridge — er, heighten their COVID risk, doesn’t mean you … Ugh, I’m already exhausted, just thinking of the arguments.

My kids (aged nine and 11) are excellent about wearing their masks. No, they don’t always want to, but they wear them without complaint when we’re out and about. They wear masks on lanyards. They wear disposable masks and reusable masks. They stuff masks in pockets and backpacks and jackets, so they always have a mask when they need one.

#MaskLife

But if Nova Scotia enters Phase 5 and masks are “recommended but not required,” are they really going to choose to wear them? Probably not. 

And while I definitely understand the urge to want them to “have a normal childhood” and “move past the pandemic,” the reality is that the Delta variant is still raging, and masks can help protect them.

COVID VACCINES FOR KIDS UNDER 12

I’m genuinely happy for friends with older children who post enthusiastic photos captioned “So grateful we’re done! Our whole family is vaccinated!” But these posts also make my stomach twist. So many of us have children too young to be jabbed. We are not “done.” We don’t know when we’ll be “done.” 

Later this fall, Pfizer is expected to submit its clinical trial results to Health Canada with the hopes of getting the stamp of approval for children 5-11 years old. How long will the approval process take from that point? Well, Pfizer applied to expand its vaccine to ages 12-15 on April 16, and received authorization just 19 days later, on May 5.

Not to jinx us, but if Pfizer submits its results to Health Canada by early October, we could have first doses into our kids (aged 5-11) by Halloween — and they could get their second doses just 21 days after that.

Imagine the relief we’d feel as parents, celebrating the holidays with family and friends, knowing that everyone who’s at least five years old can be fully vaccinated and protected against COVID. Imagine the relief we’d feel for sweet little babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, knowing they’re safer because their older siblings (and parents, and grandparents) are double-vaccinated.

While I’m very grateful Nova Scotia has such wonderful vaccination rates, it sometimes feels like those high numbers are making it easier for people to forget about the risks still facing our under-12s. Most days, I feel like Helen Lovejoy on The Simpsons, wailing “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!”

Once adults and older children are fully vaccinated (and they don’t have younger children around to worry about), they often start living their life more freely, more comfortably. In their world, much of the virus’s risk has been diminished because they know they’ll be OK even if they do catch it.

But for those of us with children too young to be vaccinated yet, that fear has never gone away. All we can do is be extra careful, encourage our kids to be careful, and hope it won’t be much longer until they can be vaccinated, too.

Heather Laura Clarke is a writer and editor who married her high-school sweetheart. They moved from the city to the country, where they spend their days making messes and memories with their 11-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter. Follow their family’s adventures over at http://www.HeathersHandmadeLife.com.

This column originally ran in SaltWire Network newspapers during the week of Sept. 8, 2021.

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