Low-Income Families Are Carrying the Enormous Costs of COVID Hysteria | Opinion

The cost of closed schools is one that our society is going to be paying for a very long time. The toll school closures took on families—emotionally, academically and financially—was immeasurable, and the way these costs were disproportionately borne by lower income families tragic and unforgivable.

Sadly, we're seeing a reprisal of these failures as we enter the third year of the global COVID-19 pandemic. It's true that children are finally back in the classroom across the nation, but things can hardly be described as "normal." Kids are still subjected to all-day mask wearing. They are forced into quarantine for a single runny nose or headache, and spend days at home waiting for test results to come back.

And the result of this overreach isn't just a third year of interrupted schooling but a considerable financial strain on families already struggling with record-setting inflation, soaring gas prices, and an economy limping back after lockdowns destroyed countless small businesses.

kids in masks
A students adjusts her facemask at St. Joseph Catholic School in La Puente, California on November 16, 2020, where pre-kindergarten to Second Grade students in need of special services returned to the classroom today for in-person instruction. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Of course, COVID safety is important, and reasonable efforts to prevent the spread fine. But that's not what we're seeing. We're seeing children, who are at the least risk of death and serious illness from COVID—significantly less risk than vaccinated adults—being subjected to punishing overreach, and low- and middle-income parents being asked to shell out thousands of dollars for unreasonable measures. This despite the fact that 40 percent of Americans can't afford a $400 emergency bill.

And just as we heard very few people discussing the educational impact of school closures last year on the most vulnerable students, we're hearing even less about the financial costs of the "forever pandemic" on the same low- and middle-income families.

Consider a story I recently heard from a third grade teacher in California: The day before a field trip, one of her students had a runny nose. It could have been a COVID symptom, or any other virus, or perhaps just allergies. But the rule in this teacher's school mandates that as soon as a symptom of any kind manifests, the student has to produce a negative test in order to return to school. But most tests that are free take two to three days to turn around, meaning this student would have missed the field trip.

She was lucky: Her parents paid $200 for a rapid test and she was able to go on the trip. But what about the kids whose parents can't afford to shell out a couple of hundred dollars so they can go on a field trip?

For kids whose parents don't have the disposable income to spend on a rapid test, it's just more financial pressure during a time that is filled with nothing but.

Here's another story from the mother of a kid in daycare that also demands a negative test whenever cold symptoms appear. "I have two kids and if one of them has a runny nose, cough, or any sign of illness, both of them have to be out until a negative PCR test is received," she told me. "Inevitably, the other one gets the cold as well, and even though the other kid just received a negative result a few days ago, again they both have to be out until the other one then also gets a negative PCR test."

This has resulted in both kids getting tested for COVID at least once a month for the past year, she told me. A PCR test is free if you can wait three days to get it back, but then you miss three days of child care, plus there is the $25 dollar copay for the doctor visit. There's also the option of going to a 12 hour return PCR testing site, where you can pay $75 dollars for a test, which means the kids will only miss one day of preschool instead of three.

"We've spent $1,800 dollars over the course of the last 12 months on doctor visits and COVID tests," this mother told me. "Yes, it was our choice to get a faster test, but two extra days waiting for the test without child care is more expensive than the fast test."

Another father, a man named Michael from Albany, told me a similar story. "Besides the challenges to our business, the costs of COVID for our school-aged family has added up to a lot over these past years," he explained. "Whether it's buying cloth reusable masks or disposable masks, it adds up to another expense that we need to consider for parents and kids every month."

In the earlier days of the pandemic, when rapid tests were not readily available, Michael would drive for hours to find a location with rapid tests so that his kids wouldn't miss a week of school due to some mild symptom or other. "Our children have been sent home from school and nursery for runny noses and coughs, forcing my wife and I to take off or reschedule work on multiple occasions," he told me.

Alex, a mom from Tennessee, told me a similar story. "The kids were 'exposed' two weeks after school started this year," Alex explained. "Their school required a test from a doctor. Williamson County, Tennessee provides tests at the health department, but the time to get it back is three days. That's three more days of school they're missing. So we went to the pediatrician. They made us do a whole sick visit with all three kids. That means a $35/kid copay. So, I missed work, paid $105 for the doctor, and the kids missed seven school days which equals $400 worth of tuition."

The costs related to COVID are just killing Alex and her family. "I've been working two part time jobs to make ends meet," she told me. "We knew we were sacrificing to put them in that school and never would have guessed a year and a half later, every bill we have is crushing us. We finally worked up to middle class and now we are struggling to hold onto that."

Even in areas where school is reopened, where masks are optional and quarantine rules less extreme, the costs are crushing. "The sheer amount of supplies the schools asked parents to buy when we returned to school was insane," Brittany, a mother of two in Arizona, told me. "Extra masks, lots of lysol, wipes, sanitizer. They are making kids sanitize constantly and sending home constant emails for parents to donate when they run out (which is almost daily)."

"My daughter gets on her bus at 7 AM to go to school, and it's a daily struggle to find a mask that she'll consent to wearing," Moshe, a father on Long Island told me. "We constantly have to buy new ones, putting more strain on an already stretched budget."

In addition to added costs of tutoring, childcare and therapy related to the pandemic fallout, Andrea, a mother in California, broke down her household costs related to masking and testing: $25 for a box of 50 child masks, which they go through every month because Andrea changes her youngest son's mask twice a day. Then there's $14.99 for 50 adult surgical masks. Andrea buys two of those a month for her two high school kids. And she estimate she's spent $750 on rapid PCR tests so her children could go back to school after exposure or a cold.

Middle class families, to say nothing of lower-income ones, are drowning under the financial weight of the imposition of COVID mitigation in their kids' schools. And some are just giving up.

One mother, Mandy, told me she's just had enough. "This sounds terrible but I no longer tell [the school] when my child has a cold," she said. "I keep them home and then send them back with a note excusing them for something unrelated. If you don't have parental buy-in and it is punitive, this is what parents are going to resort to."

She's right: You can't expect people to live like this. And the people pushing this policy refuse to accept that they are burdening those who can afford it least.

It's time to demand firm off-ramps for all of these mitigation efforts. If we care about helping kids and their families make up lost ground, taking the financial pressure off of attending school is where we need to start.

Bethany Mandel is an editor at Ricochet and cohost of the LadyBrains Podcast. Her writing has appeared in the New York Post and The New York Times. She is homeschooling her five children.

The views in this article are the writer's own.