Heidi Gates’ 11-year-old daughter recently told her that a boy in the lunchroom had wanted to scare kids who wear masks, announcing that he had COVID-19 and was going to spread it. Horrified, Gates asked her daughter what she did in response.
“She said, ‘Mom, I know how to handle this,’” she says. “She knows how to stay away, not provoke, and not engage.”
These skills have become critical for students in their town of Brighton, Michigan, one of countless communities across the country that has grown deeply divided in the wake of the pandemic. Opposing views on masks, vaccines, testing, and quarantines have taken center stage as schools have reopened this year. And though confrontational parents at school board meetings are usually what makes the news, experts are concerned about how the divisiveness in schools is affecting the children who these debates are supposed to help.
As of November 15, 17 states plus Washington, D.C., are requiring masks in classrooms; nine have banned similar mandates. It’s prompted fierce debates among parents about which protocols make sense, even in districts where the state government has not weighed in. And parents are often protesting through their children.
Some children have been pulled from school entirely. Others have been told to violate school rules or have been drafted into demonstrations. In California, where Governor Gavin Newsom announced that vaccines will eventually be mandatory for in-person students, parents organized multiple student walkouts in opposition to the plan.
Even when kids have been largely shielded from these adult arguments, they’re still well aware of the friction around them. “They may not understand the nuances, but kids pick up on things,” says Ari Yares, a psychologist in Maryland who was previously a school administrator. “Never make the assumption that you’re able to hide what you’re doing from your children.”
That’s especially true when the issue is something that directly affects children, notes psychologist Deborah Pontillo, owner and director of San Diego Kids First. They’re seeing how these fights are shaping their communities, their friendships, and, yes, their schools.
“Most kids couldn’t have cared less about foreign policy, but they’re very much interested in what’s affecting their daily life,” she says. “Politics are now dictating their world.”
What’s happening inside schools
Given the high level of vitriol—and low level of discourse—among grown-ups, it’s no surprise that bullying behaviors and shouting matches are trickling down to the next generation. “Watching adults work through this conflict is terrible modeling,” says Amanda Zelechoski, professor of psychology and director of clinical training at Purdue University Northwest.
Gates says nasty clashes have bubbled up in Brighton. Her daughter’s friends have had masks ripped off their faces by classmates. “Another parent reported that her kid was told that masks cause cancer, so you’ll get cancer and die,” she adds. Her 14-year-old son even started refusing to wear a mask because of the peer pressure he was facing.
Lunchtime is often when these conflicts flare up, notes Yares, especially among middle and high school students. “These kids have complicated interactions already from a social standpoint,” he explains. So add in new disagreements—shaped by what they’ve heard from their parents and various TikTok videos—and their interactions have become even more stressful. “They have to make decisions: When do you speak up and when do you excuse yourself?”
And kids don’t need to say a single word to take a position. Wearing a mask puts them either in the majority or the minority, which in turn can shape friend groups. Mirullia Morneault, another Brighton parent, says both her five-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter have mostly gravitated toward the handful of other kids in their classes who wear masks because it makes them feel safer, she says.
Feeling singled out can happen to kids on both sides of the debate, notes Zelechoski, who co-founded Pandemic Parent. She recalls a boy in one of her children’s classes being sent to school maskless, despite a mandate in her Indiana community. “The teacher said he had to wear a mask or would be sent home. He ended up being escorted out in front of the other kids,” she says. “That was heartbreaking for me. And it was the first thing my son talked about when he came home.”
How the debate is affecting kids
It’s unclear what the long-term consequences of these tensions among students will be academically or socially. But experts have seen a growing mental health crisis among young people during the pandemic, and they’re worried that it will only escalate.
“We’re going to see the aftermath of this for years to come,” Zelechoski says.
One concern is that these debates are creating anxiety and fear in a place that’s supposed to be a safe space for kids. “You want kids to be comfortable in school—and all the more so after spending months in Zoom school,” Yares says. Because anxiety and depression rates among young people are spiking, he’s concerned about any factors that might worsen how they feel.
For instance, Beth Leadford’s daughters are constantly interrogated by classmates in Pinckney, Michigan, about why they wear masks. But the mom expects the harassment to escalate since the vaccinated sisters tested positive for COVID-19 and will likely face false accusations from classmates that the vaccine caused the infection. “My seven-year-old was sobbing that she didn’t want to go to school,” she says. “She was petrified.”
Zelechoski adds that being back in school with peers and teachers has been critical for kids this year, so it’s a serious loss when fear stands in the way. Unfortunately, children aren’t always eager to put on their backpacks when they know awkward or antagonistic situations await. But completely pulling kids out of school—as many parents have done—isn’t an ideal solution.
Hailey Anderson of Howell, Michigan, is home with her 16-year-old son, who had been bullied in the past and was concerned about even more bullying over COVID-19 beliefs. She’s also postponed enrolling her four-year-old in preschool. But the result is that they’re all struggling. The little one is “borderline feral,” while the older one “doesn’t come out of his room,” she says.
Helping kids navigate the tensions
Although these pandemic-related problems can feel very new, the solution experts suggest for parents is timeless: talking. Pontillo says that open conversations with kids are the only way to find out what exactly they’re experiencing in school and how they’re feeling about it. Family discussions, she adds, also provide an opportunity to prepare them for sticky situations and think about other perspectives.
The day her kids were buzzing about the boy who had been sent home for refusing to wear a mask, Zelechoski reminded them that they were in a similar position at the beginning of the year, when they wore masks but many classmates did not. She also told her children that usually parents are just doing what they believe is best for their children.
“Always come from that position of empathy,” she says. “Keep that as the guiding light.”
From there, parents can tackle particular kinds of potential school confrontations. For scientific debates, Zelechoski recommends making sure kids get access to as much age-appropriate information as possible. The better they understand the terminology and latest research, the more confident they’ll be about defending their position. (This article can help kids become expert fact-checkers.)
She also suggests role-playing scenarios and having stock phrases ready. For her youngest, who’s immunocompromised, they practiced saying, “I’ve had to go to a lot of doctors and I don’t want to do that again.”
Sometimes words won’t be enough, though, so Pontillo suggests developing strategies to deal with these situations. “You can say, ‘Here’s how to walk away, or tell a teacher,” she says.
Morneault’s five-year-old son has a friend who would pull off his mask. So now he knows to alert his teacher, and Morneault always reminds him, “No one has a right to touch your face without your permission.” And she’s told both of her kids not to bring up anything related to COVID-19 at school to avoid unnecessary conflicts.
But perhaps most importantly: Kids are watching and learning from their parents’ behaviors. So whether you’re engaging in school board meetings or debates at home, Yares says to think about word choices. “Make it about how they’re trying to help rather than, ‘The other side is a bunch of doofuses and idiots,’” he says. “Elevate dialogue, not name-calling.
“Take a deep breath before we open our mouths,” he adds. “Breathe, whether that’s in front of our kids or at a school board meeting,” he says. That will keep conversations—and hopefully your kids—healthier and happier.