Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Melissa Seger once thought she wanted to be a schoolteacher.
"I actually started going to school to be a teacher and realized very quickly that it was not for me," she said.
Or so she thought.
This school year, Seger and her husband, Rob, will home-school their children, a decision solidified after the Republican-majority Salt Lake County Council voted 6-3 along party lines Thursday to terminate a health order that would have required all children in Salt Lake County under age 12 to wear masks in school.
Last year, the couple's 6-year-old twins, Gwendolyn and Vivian, participated in kindergarten online. Their eldest daughter, Lydia, 10, also started the school year online but the multiple hours of screen time each day took their toll.
"With my fourth grader, it was all day and she was having a hard time with the constant Zoom meetings, just getting the energy to move forward and do all the stuff she needed to do," Seger said.
"We ended up putting her into school in March after my husband had been vaccinated. Because of the masks, we felt comfortable," she said, referring to the universal masking of students, educators and staff that was required at the start of the 2020-2021 school year but was abandoned in the final weeks of the school year under the so-called COVID-19 "endgame" legislation passed by the Utah Legislature.
The Segers considered sending their children to school in person after Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, announced that she was issuing an order of restraint requiring mask-wearing by elementary-age children not yet eligible for vaccination.
But that plan ended after the mask mandate was swiftly terminated by the County Council.
"It's disheartening. I was a little upset when I put their backpacks away and all the things that we had bought them specifically for school," Seger said.
"We just put them away in hopes that maybe as soon as we can get them vaccinated, we can talk again about sending them back to school, depending on what the climate is like."
The Segers are hardly alone.
Jeff Haney, spokesman for Canyons School District, said the district received an onslaught of inquiries about online school options immediately after the County Council vote.
Jordan School District has likewise received an uptick in parents enrolling their children in its online schools as concerns about the delta variant of COVID-19 have increased and case counts have climbed, said district spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf.
Seger said she and her husband could have sent their daughters to school with masks but she feared how they would fare given the deeply divergent views on mask-wearing in their community and across Utah.
"We were worried if we sent them, would they be persecuted? Would they be made fun of?" she said.
Even though she and her husband have been fully vaccinated for several months, they have deep concerns about breakthrough COVID-19 and the threat posed by the more virulent delta variant for Robert, who is a cancer survivor and has epilepsy.
They also are concerned about long-haul COVID-19 and MIS-C, multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, which is a serious condition associated with COVID-19 where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs.
In a briefing with reporters prior to the County Council vote, Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health and director of hospital epidemiology at Primary Children's Hospital, explained that "children do get sick with COVID."
Children are less likely to get severely ill than adults, and many who become infected will be fine, Pavia said.
"But that doesn't translate into kids not being affected by COVID. Not only can they get very very sick, and we deal with that in Primary Children's frequently, but there are other impacts on children, including what happens when they're quarantined, if they develop long COVID. or their parents are ill," he said.
Not all children are healthy and able to fight off the effects of COVID-19 as readily as others. "Depending on how you estimate it, up to a fifth of children in school have a medical condition that might put them at increased risk. It may be asthma, and maybe diabetes and maybe obesity or maybe something much more serious, like cancer or transplant. Those kids can only be protected adequately if everyone is wearing a mask," he said.
Pavia, who said he is usually dispassionate during medical briefings, said, "It's very hard for me. I feel very very strongly that we are about to put our children at great risk."
Nathan Jeffs, whose two younger children have medical conditions that put them at greater risk of complications were they to contract COVID-19, plans to keep his elementary school-age children at home this fall and utilize online instruction.
All three of his children attended school online last year but his son, entering the seventh grade, will attend school in person. He is fully vaccinated and will wear a mask to school. The Jeffses have purchased multiple reusable N-95 masks for each of their children, he said.
Asked if he feared that his son would be bullied at school for wearing a mask, Jeffs said, "Absolutely we do."
Jeffs and his wife have helped prepare him for that possibility.
"I would say it's a possibility but I think it's more of that eventuality. If it doesn't happen I would be incredibly shocked if he doesn't get some kind of comment or another," he said.
Jeffs said he wishes that members of the County Council who voted to end the mask mandate would have deferred to Dunn's expertise.
"We're grateful that we decided to just sign them both up for online instead because they're playing, they're gambling, with children's lives here," he said.
Jeffs said he has had the experience of spending multiple days in a pediatric intensive care unit with his critically ill daughter, who had respiratory syncytial virus or RSV, RSV-induced asthma and pneumonia all at the same time.
"I think there's a lot of individuals out there who seem, especially on the anti-mask, anti-vax side, who've never experienced or seen an emergency room or had an intensive care unit visit with a child. They don't have that background knowledge of what it's like and how horrific it is to see a small child get intubated. It is a tremendously invasive and, frankly, frightening procedure to see, five grown adults restraining the arms and legs of a 5-year-old child so that they can intubate them. It's not a sight you'd really wish on anyone," Jeffs said.
"Without that background knowledge, a lot of these individuals, a lot of these legislators who are against these mask mandates, just don't have the capacity to understand why it's such a concern for so many people."
While online learning is the best option to protect his younger children's health, Jeffs said he knows that his son, "a people pleaser," would benefit more educationally by attending school in person.
Until his younger children can be vaccinated and without a mask mandate, they'll make the most of online learning.
"We want very much to send them back in person. As many people have pointed out, and I think just about everyone will agree, in-person is best for learning," Jeffs said.