On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made an announcement that many Americans have been looking forward to since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic: people who are fully vaccinated no longer have to wear a mask outside, and even indoors, in the majority of settings.
But for parents of small children for whom there is no approved vaccination, the announcement brought on more questions than a sense of overwhelming relief. While the Pfizer vaccine was recently approved for children ages 12 to 15, vaccinations for children ages 5 to 11 won't be available until late this year, according to The New York Times. And for babies 6 months and older, toddlers, and preschoolers, not until early 2022, per the same report.
As a mother to two children, ages 6 and 2, my immediate thought after learning I could put my mask in my pocket was: Well, what about my kids? Since my sons cannot get vaccinated yet, they still fall under previous mask guidelines. How will they feel seeing their parents walk around outside, or even indoors, without a mask while they wear theirs?
"This has been so detrimental to the primary caregivers," Moraya Seeger DeGeare, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and an anti-racism consultant, tells Refinery29. "The anxiety that I have heard from parents is something that, as a therapist, I have never experienced. And the self-doubt."
While the decision will ultimately rest with parents, co-parents, and caregivers, there are some factors those with unvaccinated children should consider when deciding how to move forward in a safe and healthy way.
If you're co-parenting, both parents should get on the same page.
"The biggest thing that we're teaching our kids right now is that we have values for our family and the rest of the world might have different values," DeGeare says. "So it's important for parents to be on the same page because this is already so confusing for kids."
DeGeare says that not only is it important for parents to present a united front to their children as guidelines evolve and things change in the era of COVID, but in general, it allows kids to better find their footing in social settings where their parents may not be around to help guide them.
"They can make a voice in those nuanced situations because there are going to be moments — even though we feel like we're around our kids all the time right now — as the world opens up more that they're actually going to need to actively, in the moment know what to do," DeGeare says.
As a family, discuss your boundaries and personal feelings about specific situations. Once you have established what works for you as a family to stay safe, specific scenarios will likely be easier to navigate.
Familiarize yourself with the facts and talk to your kids.
You don't have to tell your kids all the nitty-gritty numbers, but let them know: because you're vaccinated, it's very unlikely that you'll contract COVID-19, and even unlikelier that you'd pass it on to them — so it's safe for you to be in CDC-approved situations without a mask on, even though they're not yet vaccinated. "Transmission is so low and the risk of children contracting and getting severe disease so low, that donning the mask would make a minimal difference [when trying to keep COVID-19 from coming into your home]," Dr. Chelsea D. Johnson, MD, FAAP, Associate Lead of Pediatrics at K Health, tells Refinery29.
"If unmasked, however, there still remains the chance, albeit small, that [kids] can transmit the disease to another," Dr. David Shafran MD, Head of Pediatrics at K Health says. That's why, according to The New York Times, those with immunocompromised or high-risk children should consult with a medical professional in case they need to modify wearing masks or spending time indoors.
DeGeare says communication is key. While the CDC has advised fully vaccinated people that it is safe to not wear a mask outside and indoors in most settings, parents like myself are unsure how their unvaccinated children will react to their parents suddenly shedding their masks. This abrupt change could be confusing, especially to younger children who have adapted to wearing masks outside and in social settings, and perhaps even frightening.
It's also important for you to emphasize that they should keep wearing their masks. "Explain, not in a way that is going to create panic, that 'You're not vaccinated. You do not have this layer of protection. And as much as maybe we haven't seen as many kids get sick, it's really important to keep you safe,'" DeGeare suggests.
She also says that it may be helpful to be willing to slip on your mask when not strictly necessary if you feel like it would be beneficial for your kids. "If it's important for your kid to be wearing a mask and they're having an issue, then why not just put your mask back on?" she asks. "Words are great, but we have to do so much modeling for our kids. So if there's tension there, then we as adults can just put our masks back on."
You don't have to make a drastic change right now.
Like many Americans, parents feel a sense of urgency in returning to "normal" as quickly as possible, especially given the near-constant discussions surrounding the trauma, anxiety, and other mental health ramifications the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our children.
But DeGeare says that there is no rush — if you don't want to make a change to the safety precautions you have had in place for your family right this minute: don't.
"The first thing to remember is there's actually no urgency," she explains. "We do not have to make these abrupt changes for our kids because that actually can be a little bit more confusing." So if you're feeling confused or anxious around the new guidelines and are unsure of what to do, DeGeare suggests simply taking a beat and continuing to rely on your current safety precautions as guidelines continue to evolve and things become more clear.
It's also perfectly OK to not know what to do.
If you feel adrift among these new guidelines: you're not alone. The best you can do, according to DeGeare, is trust your instincts, consult the experts and recommendations from health officials, and continue to discuss you and your family's comfort level regarding everyone's overall health, risk factors, and specific social situations.
"I like to remind parents that no one really has all the answers here. If anything, we need a government that's just a whole bunch of moms. The CDC guidelines show that parents aren't really a priority here, and no one is actively thinking about the stress of parents," DeGeare says.
"But before this pandemic, you were a great parent and you probably had doubts then," she continues. "So remind yourself that you're doing the same now."