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Some Schools Let Students Go Maskless, Leaving A Tough Choice For Medically Fragile Families

A family poses for a portrait on the curb of their suburban neighborhood. There is a mother and father, with their three children -- a girl and two boys, all young children -- in between them.
Bret Jaspers
/
KERA
(l-r) Lindsey, Addie, Charles, Noah, and Matthew Wamsley.

What do you do if a medical condition leaves your child with a weaker immune system?

Lindsey Wamsley spends two hours a day prepping medications for her 5-year-old daughter, Addie. There are nine different drugs, and some she takes more than once a day.

Coaxing a young child to take this much medicine definitely requires creativity. The Wamsleys give each vial a playful name, like “orange drop,” “yummy reindeer,” and the less-tasty “yucky reindeer.”

“She helps us name every single one of them,” Lindsey said.

Addie has leukemia, a cancer of the blood. These drug treatments suppress her immune system, although her immunity is much stronger in the current maintenance phase of treatment than it was after her diagnosis in 2019.

Older brother Noah, who is 7 years old, has been taking remote classes so he doesn’t bring home any germs for things like COVID-19. He misses school dearly.

“Like two nights I dreamed of it. In a row,” he said.

The End Of Mandatory Masks — For Some Students

Whether or not to send children to school in-person is a dilemma that has faced parents of medically-fragile children since Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency ended their statewide mask requirements earlier this month.

The TEA recommends that people 10 years and older continue to wear masks, but ultimately, the guidance is optional.

“The governing board of a school system may modify or eliminate by formal action the above mask-related requirements,” TEA guidance reads.

Weatherford ISD subsequently made masks optional for all students and staff, while Fort Worth ISD kept its mandate.

The board of the Wamsley’s district, Birdville ISD northeast of Fort Worth, decided it would no longer require masks for children under 10 years old when they are at their desks. Under this policy, Noah could be more exposed to COVID and other diseases at school than he would’ve been a few weeks ago.

Virtual learning has been a real challenge for Noah because he has severe audio processing disorder, which makes it hard to understand some sounds. Lindsey Wamsley said in-class instruction helps tremendously because a teacher can wear a special microphone that feeds into his hearing aids.

At home, she and her husband can’t always sit with Noah at the computer, especially with multiple doctor visits for Addie. It makes it hard for him to learn much of anything, Lindsey said.

“Do we send him, and hope for the best, and imagine that he will just somehow be protected, and I just don’t sleep as well at night?” she said. “Or do we keep him home, and absolutely devastate his world?”

On its website, Birdville ISD said the district “remains focused on student and staff safety and well-being, and we are encouraged by the progress being made with vaccine availability.”

Shane & Latresha Leonard sitting on their couch.
Bret Jaspers
Shane and Latresha Leonard.

For Others, Masks Remain

Sixth-grader Shane Leonard attends a school in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD northwest of Fort Worth, where masks are still required for everyone.

Shane has sickle cell disease and asthma, two conditions that could lead to a more serious case of COVID-19. During Christmas, he and his mother Latresha both caught COVID-19. It was a scary time, but they recovered after mild cases.

Latresha said her son’s grades were dropping with virtual school. She is comfortable with him attending class in person, but if masks weren’t required, she would keep Shane home.

“Even though he knows how to protect himself, I just think that would be a risk. That would be too big of a risk,” she said.

For Shane, wearing a mask at school isn’t a big deal.

“On the third day [it] just felt like my mask wasn’t there. And then I noticed when I got to lunch,” he said. “It’s kind of normal now.”

In an email, the Texas Education Agency said it is not tracking data on how many school districts in the state are requiring masks for all students.

A Hard Choice

Children are less likely to develop severe cases of COVID-19, although kids with weaker immune systems can do OK even when they get the virus, according to Dr. Nicholas Rister at Cook Children’s Hospital. It really depends on the patient’s specific pre-existing condition and his or her phase of treatment. A lot is still unknown about COVID-19, especially the long-term effects.

Rister acknowledged it’s a hard choice for a parent to send a child with a compromised immune system — or a sibling — into a school that’s lifted its mask requirement. The research on masks strongly indicates wearing them prevents infections.

“You don’t necessarily see the benefit,” Rister said of the mask mandate. “You don’t see the infection that doesn’t happen. You only see things when they do, so it’s hard to realize how big of a difference you are making.”

People against mask requirements often argue such a rule restricts individual rights.

In her view, Lindsey Wamsley said going to school in-person has far higher stakes than say, shopping in person.

“Choosing to send my son to school, to me, that’s a basic right,” she said. “To have [an] equitable education for him that is safe — that’s not the same as me just desiring to go into a store whenever I want without a mask on. It’s just not the same.”

The Wamsleys ultimately decided to send Noah to in-person first grade. They’re teaching him how to keep his mask on with his friends around, because he might be the only one.

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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