Rep. Jasmine Clark, Rep. Rebecca Mitchell and Dr. Amber Schmidtke discuss the current state of the pandemic and advice for parents sending their children back to school.

Rep. Jasmine Clark, Rep. Rebecca Mitchell and Dr. Amber Schmidtke discuss the current state of the pandemic and advice for parents sending their children back to school.

Credit: Allexa Ceballos/Fresh Take Georgia

As Georgia children head back into the classroom, two state representatives and a microbiologist, all mothers as well as experts, said they share the concerns of all parents about the continuing pandemic and encouraged them to practice whatever cautions make them feel comfortable.

Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat from Lilburn who teaches microbiology at Emory University, hosted a virtual town hall on Facebook Tuesday to explain the delta variant of COVID-19 and answer questions. She was joined by Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, an epidemiologist and Democrat from Snellville, and Dr. Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist who has worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines on July 27 stating that everyone in K-12 schools should wear masks indoors, even if vaccinated. Gov. Brian Kemp said he will not impose any statewide mask mandate, even as some school districts, including Atlanta, have mandated them for children and staff.

Parents from counties with differing protocols in place tuned in and submitted questions about the safest strategies for their children heading off to school this week. They asked about mask sizing for small children, how to mitigate risk at lunch, and whether conditions like asthma added to their child’s risk for infection. 

Experts are mothers, too

All three experts on the panel are also mothers who have also decided to send their children to school in person.

Clark said this wave of the virus comes with an additional struggle.

“While we are actually dealing with a variant of the virus that is able to spread to more people more quickly, we’re also dealing with pandemic fatigue,” she said. “We’re dealing with people saying, ‘My child really suffered academically last year when they were not in the school setting. We’re dealing with society, honestly just being over it. And that is a very unfortunate place to be, when we’re dealing with a variant that is more transmissible than chickenpox.”

Mitchell, whose doctorate focused specifically on the transmission dynamics of infectious disease, said that this decision does not come easily for any parent.

“I’ll just point out that if you can see three of us struggling with this decision, please know that you’re completely normal for struggling with this, too,” she said. “We have a ton of education between the three of us, and all three of us have had to really deliberate and think about what we’re doing when it comes to our kiddos.”

Schmidtke has been working to break down COVID-19 science to Georgians through her newsletter, podcast and social media. She said she has really thought hard about whether to send her children, who are 5 and 7, back to school.

“I don’t know what is the right choice for me to do with my children right now,” she said. “I think my kids desperately need more social interaction.”

Schmidtke said if the mask mandate in place in Gwinnett public schools is observed consistently, that is the best chance she has for her children to have social interaction and learn with other children as safely as they can. 

Mitchell, who has preschool-aged children, responded to a question about whether parents should send their kids to a preschool with no mask requirement.

“Some of us have to send them, we don’t have a choice,” she said. “If you have to send them, you have to send them. The only reason for having to send them isn’t necessarily just because you have to work; it could also be because you need the mental health space, it could be because they need the mental health space. The reasons for sending them can be varied, and we have to acknowledge that this is the reality for a lot of us.”

Who in school are vaccinated?

Clark said no mechanism exists right now to find out whether teachers are vaccinated or unvaccinated, or to know the percentage of people that are vaccinated or unvaccinated in your school or in your child’s class. 

“I say this to say, as a parent who is sending her daughter into the school building — my daughter, however, is vaccinated — that sending students back into the building is a calculated risk for my child,” she said. “While she did not completely have a horrible year last year going digital, or being digital the entire time, I definitely do believe that she would benefit from that face-to-face instruction. ”

Mitchell said every parent will have a different threshold of risk, and they should endure any apologies or shame for practicing extreme caution if it helps them to sleep at night.

“Just understand that we’re scientists on this, but we’re also moms,” she said. “This stuff keeps us up at night too, and so all the compassion and all the grace for all of you as you struggle with all of these decisions.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Fresh Take Georgia.