Nine-year-old Landen Sapien started off fourth grade this year with a lot of hope—at first, anyway. His school was one of few in Florida with a mask mandate, after the Hillsborough County School Board defied the Governor's order that there would be no masking in schools. But amid Supreme Court battles as the first few weeks of school unfolded, his classmates stopped wearing them. Landen says he was disappointed, because no masks meant it would be unsafe for him to go to school, which makes him feel frustrated and sad.
In June 2019, Landen was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL), which requires three-and-a-half years of chemotherapy. "I want the world to know that I've been through so much," says Landen. "I have leukemia. I've waited so long to be able to get to a safe part of my treatment to go out, and then COVID came." When people stopped masking, he couldn't do the things he'd been waiting to do—including going to school in person.
There is no hybrid option—rotating groups of students attending school in-person some days, and online on others—either, Landen's mother, Amy Sapien, explains. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made it a statewide rule that schools reopen fully in person at least five days a week for all students. Landen can't be in the state's hospital/homebound or virtual school options, because they are both full with students on waiting lists.
There are still no good options.
The start of this school year coincided with the delta variant, and an increase in COVID-19 cases among children. Still, many of Florida's politicians continued to attack masking. In turn, some school districts, individual families, and the U.S. Department of Education sued the state for banning mask mandates and stripping funds from school boards that have implemented mask mandates this year.
The chaos around masking turns students like Landen, who bear the brunt of the pandemic's disruption and disarray, into bargaining chips for political capital. Masking has long been a political fight—even if it didn't have be—with some Florida parents arguing that schools have no right to deny their children an education for refusing to wear a mask. Amy and her husband have been name-called at school board meetings via Zoom for bringing it up.
Some children have paid the ultimate price.
In Florida, 26 children and 107 educators have died from COVID-19 since July 2021 as of November 16, according to data from The Florida Education Association.
Amy describes hearing about a student who died from COVID-19 around the start of this school year, but because the child had an underlying condition, "it's not in the news, nobody cares, nobody knows the kid's name."
For Amy, the student's death was just another example of who is—and isn't—allowed to have a full education experience, complete with safe social interaction. She worked in Veterans Affairs as a social worker for 11 years, and knows how deeply-rooted ableism and devaluing disabled people is in society. Now, she is "concerned that as a culture we're losing part of our humanity."
About a year after Landen's diagnosis, right when COVID-19 was first detected in the U.S., Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer, requiring a mastectomy, a hysterectomy, and chemo. She took note of people posting quips like "get busy living or get busy dying," and arguing that COVID-19 would only truly harm vulnerable people.
"And we're like, we can hear you," she says.
Ultimately, Amy left her job in Veterans Affairs because nurses were contracting COVID-19, rendering it unsafe for her to work there. Someone also had to home-school her boys. Her husband was able to secure a new position at work, which covered part of her lost earnings. But Landen would still rather be at school.
Schools are at the epicenter of local and state political choices on COVID-19 protocols—and how they impact families.
Inaccessibility and inequity issues in education aren't new to the pandemic—nor is the fact that families and students' lives are shaped by education policies. The South has been ground zero throughout the pandemic in terms of COVID-19 outbreaks, deaths, and political ineptitude to help folks survive these times. Nearly a dozen interviews with kids and parents in Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Texas emphasize a need to fundamentally rethink much of education, including the myth that schools operate separately from other aspects of a student's life.
Centering students and families in the South is necessary to unpacking the intersection of work, child care, paid leave, health care, and school policies that define not just the experiences students have at school, but at home, too. All at once, it's an education crisis, a public health crisis, a labor crisis, and a child care crisis—underscoring systemic gaps in care, support, and resources.
And amid all the noise, the children and teenagers get drowned out, despite being the ones who live out the consequences of decisions adults are making about their well-being, and the real-time hardships disrupted school years create for them.
In Landen's world, he says sometimes doing school from home is more difficult than it is in-person: some of the assignments are clearly meant to be done at school. It's harder to do quizzes. He misses making friends, and social interaction with people he doesn't know. Plus, "I just kind of like school," Landen adds. "Because I like to learn stuff, and there were a bunch of nice teachers there."
After talking about his own experience, Landen pauses to ask if he can share his 5-year-old brother's point of view. He says his brother, Corben, is also disappointed not to be in school, because he wants to learn to read. He asked for COVID-19 to go away as his birthday present. "He's really wanted to go to Legoland, and the aquarium and a bunch of other stuff, so that's kind of something we've gone through together," Landen explains. Corben doesn't remember a time before COVID.
Now, both brothers have received the first dose of their COVID-19 vaccine. As of November 2021, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for use in children ages five to eleven. Landen hopes getting vaccinated will allow him to attend school in-person this year, although some research notes certain types of blood cancer will make COVID-19 breakthrough cases more severe.
"In addition to the monetary hit of having double cancer, and three half years of treatment for him, now we're losing income and funds—and this is just primarily just so you don't have to wear a mask," Amy says.
'We are continuing to screw these children'
Even this deep into the fall semester, policies and protocols on quarantining and masking aren't consistent, leaving students and families in a perpetual state of chaos. There's a direct line between school districts' failures to enact protocols that keep families safe and how families are managing financially, emotionally, and in terms of child care.
Reporting from Reckon South detailed that even pre-pandemic, child care workers were paid less, and many places don't have enough available child care slots. Pandemic disruptions to child care disproportionately impacted Black, Latinx, and Indigenous families; an estimated 175,000 children—disproportionately in families of color—have lost caregivers or parents to COVID-19.
Despite earlier promises, it isn't looking likely that Congress will pass federal paid family leave as part of the Build Back Better spending package, thanks to Senator Joe Manchin, the only Senate Democrat who opposed putting it back in the social safety net package after it was initially cut. Without that provision, the United States will remain one of only six countries with no form of national paid leave.
According to data from the Center of Law and Social Policy, over half of unemployed young people were out of work due to the pandemic, and there are dire disparities in leave policies. Four out of five workers nationwide do not have access to paid family leave, and most states do not have paid leave laws.
The crises intersect, and so do the disasters. This particularly harms low-wage workers, who are less likely to have access to paid leave, as well as Black and Hispanic workers, who are less likely than white workers to have any access to paid family or medical leave.
When asked what policies, in schools or otherwise, would've helped her family over the course of the pandemic, Robyn Gilmore of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says, "fricken paid leave. I don't understand why this is so hard to comprehend."
COVID-19 protocols in schools have had a significant impact on Robyn's whole family. She's a trauma-focused, school-based therapist. Her husband is a high school teacher, and their 5-year-old, James, has been in-and-out of kindergarten. The family also welcomed another baby in June 2020, when Robyn gave birth in a mask.
James says he and his friends had gotten used to their masks, and that attending in-person classes was going "pretty good"—especially on Frozen Treat Friday. But in September, James got sick with COVID-19 after his baby sister got it at day care, passing it to the whole family. Robyn and her husband were vaccinated, and both contracted breakthrough cases. James said he had to do "the nose test"—the COVID-19 nasal swab. "I kind of cried," James says. "But it kind of just tickled." When he goes back to school, he's excited to do a "real art project."
Robyn stopped working full-time in March 2020: While her job technically allowed her to work from home, there wasn't sufficient patient attendance for her to be full-time when students were virtual, and when students didn't show, she didn't get paid. She went part-time, then took unpaid maternity leave. This school year, she's been at work since the first week of August, but between family illness and Hurricane Ida, she's had to take five weeks off so far—none of which was paid.
Robyn's husband gets 10 days of paid leave a year, which he has already blown through due to being sick himself, and having sick children. Louisiana took away COVID-19 leave for employees early this year. Robyn only receives two paid personal days. She's not paid for "bad weather days" either.
When the whole family was sick, her quarantine period technically ended before James' did. "But who's going to watch my kid?" she wondered. Either Robyn or her husband would have to stay home until James' quarantine ended. "It's not like I'm going to get my 65-year-old mother to come over and watch my potentially contagious child."
In Louisiana, Hurricane Ida hit just as schools opened for the year, leaving roughly 169,000 children out of school.
Restoration to South Louisiana schools damaged by Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Delta, and Hurricane Ida was paused due to slow disaster relief payouts. Without guaranteed paid leave, people are losing income.
It's a terrible trickle down: When the choice for parents is between paying bills or keeping their sick child home, missed school days create even higher stakes. Robyn says she knows their family is privileged; they have the most support of anyone they know. But it's still been isolating and stressful. On top of that, she said the family's blown through their savings.
After talking about her own family, Robyn wanted to talk about mental health. As a trauma-focused therapist who works with teenagers, she says these 19 months of the pandemic mark a shift. "I have never seen children so traumatized," she says. Many of the children she works with have lost people to homicide; now, they're losing loved ones to COVID-19.
"Here's the thing that has me absolutely furious: I'm exhausted." She loves her kids, she loves her school, but she can't keep up the pace. She doesn't take a lunch break. She sees students from the start of the day to them staying late after school to talk to her. She spent some of her stimulus check on getting trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a type of psychotherapy designed to alleviate stress of traumatic memories, just to have additional ways to help alleviate symptoms. But her efforts aren't enough, she says.
"And the idea that my kids, because they're [on] Medicaid, are never going to have access to the type of therapy they need and deserve is…" Robyn trails off. "It's just another way that we are continuing to screw these children."
Students know it, too.
"I think the mental impact of this pandemic needs to be monitored more," says Mackenzie Pendleton, a 17-year-old-senior at McComb High School in McComb, Mississippi, via email. "I wouldn't doubt in the years to come that we see mass mental health breaks in the school systems, because the mental support is not there."
Mackenzie is immunocompromised, and has had COVID-19 three different times, as recently as the third week of September, despite hardly going anywhere in public.
She thrived in online learning last year, but this year, she didn't get a choice: Her school is back fully in-person, with what she was assured would be strict protocols. Students are required ("I use this term loosely," MacKenzie clarifies) to go through the cafeteria for a temperature check and a pump of hand sanitizer. They are also "required" to wear masks, but Mackenzie sees exposed noses often. There is no strict pattern for quarantining exposed students, MacKenzie says, and most quarantined students are still allowed to go to school sports functions and extracurriculars with no masks.
"This year it was almost like we 'forgot' that the pandemic is still ravaging this country and many others." As parents and students complained about virtual learning last year, "we were definitely thrown into it and forcefully told 'we need to go back to normal,'" she says.
In Mississippi, over 22,000 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the academic year.
At the end of October, Mississippi hit 10,000 deaths related to COVID-19. In one remarkable 24-hour period, Republican Governor Tate Reeves dismissed the threat of COVID-19 in children, and an eighth grader died from COVID-19 complications. Right around the same time, Mississippi health officials described the delta variant's impact on the state as "sweeping across Mississippi like a tsunami."
Mackenzie's classmate, Bailey Bonds, a 16-year-old junior at McComb High School, has been thinking about how the pandemic has impacted her community, which has been "experiencing death back to back," she says.
Bailey wonders, "when is there gonna be a break? Everything is not school."
'I blame our politicians'
Politics feel all the more personal over these pandemic years, as decisions in statehouses, courtrooms, and the White House directly impact who lives or dies.
Abraham Garcia-Romero, 17, says he thanks Democratic Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear for his state's mask ordinance. Though Kentucky's Republican-led legislature scrapped the statewide mask mandate for public schools, a significant number of Kentucky school districts opted to keep mask requirements in place.
Abraham has a photo on his phone he looks at every so often, when he wants to reflect. In it, his 36-year-old mother sits in the pitch-black dark, with a paramedic in a full hazmat suit standing beside her, rubbing her back. The photo, taken by his brother in April 2021, was from when Abraham's mother was rushed to the emergency room after being diagnosed with COVID-19, when her symptoms escalated.
COVID-19 has touched every corner of Abraham's family. His great-grandmother passed away from presumed COVID-19 in Cuba, where Abraham's mother and grandmother emigrated from when Abraham's mother was 13. Up until Abraham's mother got sick, the family was hesitant to get the vaccine—and he doesn't blame them. "I blame our politicians and I blame Facebook," he says. "Misinformation is really killing people," he adds.
Abraham's father had to borrow money from friends for bills when he had COVID-19 and couldn't go to work at a sawmill in Central City. Abraham used to work at Walmart after school—but when COVID-19 hit his family for the second time this September, he and his mom decided it was best for him to take a break from work until case numbers dropped, or until his youngest brother could get vaccinated. (As of now, Abraham and his entire family have been vaccinated. As soon as the vaccine is available for children and appointments are available in Kentucky, his youngest brother will be vaccinated, too.)
As of September, more than 8 million people nationally were left with zero unemployment compensation when lawmakers decided not to renew programs, including the federal weekly supplement for individuals out of work.
Now, Abraham's county is no longer offering a virtual option for school. He's part of the state's homebound/hospital program, a virtual-learning option that requires a doctor's signature. Abraham takes Humira, a medication that can impact your immune system. "You know, I pray every day that [COVID-19] just keeps trending down and that more people decide to get vaccinated, and we're going to put this thing finally behind us," Abraham says. "But until then, I'm doing home-hospital." He wishes school administrators and policymakers knew the whole situation is a "mess."
"Students and teachers are stressed beyond what anyone could imagine," he adds. As Abraham points out, COVID-19 doesn't only impact students themselves, either—every decision that involves a student trickles out to touch everyone around them, too.
"Who we vote for for school board, who we vote for our local politicians, our state politicians: This is when it mattered," says Amy Grant, a 41-year-old mother who owns a therapy clinic in Buda, Texas, a suburb of Austin. "And we have the wrong people in charge."
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott banned mask mandates in schools and opted not to provide funding for a remote learning option. Most recently, the Texas ban on mask mandates in schools was overturned by a federal judge, citing the fact that it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Grant had assumed her second-grader, Mila, would be headed back to school in person, since Grant is vaccinated and students would be masked. When it was announced there would actually be no mask mandate, Grant was left scrambling: The homebound/hospital program the district offered, in which a teacher would meet with the student every week for around four hours while the parent had to manage the curriculum themselves, was only set to run from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Grant, a single, immunocompromised parent of a 7-year-old, would be left teaching her daughter during business hours, when she was also supposed to be seeing clients.
"I need to take care of myself, but I also need to pay my bills to keep my business open and to keep the lights on at my house," Grant says. "And now, we're like, great, here comes winter. Let's prepare for not having any power. Literally every single aspect of my life has been negatively impacted by this one decision to not have safety precautions in the school."
Eventually, she got Mila accepted to a Texas-approved home-school program—but because it took a month and half for paperwork to be processed, Mila didn't start this school year until around mid-October, as opposed to August. Grant has had to hire someone to watch Mila during the day so she can go into the office and attempt to keep her business afloat, then Grant and Mila complete Mila's school day from around five or six in the evening until close to midnight.
Grant asked Mila to describe her day, to which Mila replied: "Do my school work and be sad, and then… be sadder." She's sad about her online school, because she misses her friends, eating lunch at school, and her teachers. "There's only one good thing," Mila says of virtual school. "The only good thing is that you don't get coronavirus."
Both Grant and Mila are neurodivergent, and Grant says the one positive of Mila being at home is that she hasn't had to cover up her neurodivergent behaviors or mannerisms to fit in at school, also known as "masking." But Grant isn't sure that the trade-off of Mila being anxious, and missing friends and the library, has been worth it. She believes the school district's decision is fully to blame.
In Texas, families of children with disabilities have filed a lawsuit challenging Abbott's ban on mask mandates in schools.
The flurry of COVID-19 precaution changes has left Texas students and families at risk while the lawsuit moves through the courts.
"I know people who've lost their jobs. I know kids' families [who] are destroyed from medical bills from their kids being admitted to the ICU. I know children who have died. I know people who have contracted COVID-19 and, in turn, their families have contracted it, and family members have died because the kids had to go to school," Grant says.
"It's like a line of dominoes, and it affects everyone [on] a massive scale, but nobody wants to recognize who could have just stopped the domino from falling."
Breaking Through COVID is a collection of stories focused on illuminating the ways the pandemic has realigned our communities and put sharper points on the crises the South was already facing.