As mask requirements lift, many families with immunocompromised kids and relatives feel overlooked

This story is part of Amy Bell’s Parental Guidance column, which airs on CBC Radio One’s The Early Edition.


Masks may cover our mouths, but they’ve sparked some rather heated conversations over the past two years. And while most people would love to embrace a post-COVID world where masks are rarely seen, are we really there yet?

With hospitalizations from COVID-19 going down, the government has removed most masking requirements.

Still, a lot of parents were surprised that following spring break — when many families would once again be traveling — masks would no longer be required in schools, although children are still welcome to wear them.

Some people feel like putting the onus on those who truly need that layer of protection, such as children who are immunocompromised or have family members who are, is just another example of how people who are medically vulnerable have been overlooked when it comes to COVID-19 safety. 

Ti Young has a young son, and while he is healthy, their family bubble includes two members who are immunocompromised and one who has a lung condition.

By sending her son to school, even if he’s masked, she worries about what he’ll now be exposed to and what he may bring home.

Young feels like the government has been too quick to download the responsibility of other people’s safety onto everyday people — some of whom may not have all the information they need to make the most informed choices.

“The province put the responsibility on not getting sick on individual decisions, and while I really respect other people’s decisions … it’s also really important that people get to make their decisions with the right kind of information.”

We disappear from our social circles, you don’t really think of us. So it’s easier to accept policy decisions that are like, ‘Let these people handle it themselves.’Ti Young

As someone who is medically vulnerable herself, Young says she fears that as some people are forced to isolate more as restrictions are eased, they’ll just be forgotten. 

“It’s just easiest to discard folks who don’t have the immunity that allows you to have the risk model where you’re like, ‘Hey I can afford an infection or two.’ We disappear from our social circles, you don’t really think of us. So it’s easier to accept policy decisions that are like, ‘Let these people handle it themselves.'”

Parents of children who are at risk are understandably frustrated and afraid. They’ve spent months doing everything they can to keep their children healthy, and that has meant trusting others will make the effort to protect everyone in society.

With COVID still very much active around the world, Lindsey Locke feels like her daughter’s and many others’ lives are being risked for the sake of healthy people. After being born premature, Lindsey says her daughter is very immunocompromised. 

“The disabled and the immune-compromised and everybody deserves to access essential services like education, the grocery store, transit. You don’t know what anyone else is going through so why should someone put their life in danger just to get an education because people don’t want to wear a mask? It’s very disheartening as a parent.”

Many teachers are also concerned about the health of their students now that masks are not required. Jennifer Heighton teaches grade five, and is also a member of the Safe Schools Coalition B.C., whose members released an open letter before students returned to class from spring break.

In it, they outlined concerns around low vaccination rates in children under 12, highly transmissible variants, and the unknown risks of long COVID in children. They want a return to universal masking in schools to make sure access to education is fair and equitable for all kids, no matter what their personal and family situations are. 

Families that have immunocompromised kids or live with an immunocompromised family member, or an elderly grandparent, or an unvaccinated sibling? What are they supposed to do?– Jennifer Heighton

“It’s not like going to a movie theater or choosing to go to a restaurant indoors,” says Heighton.

“The kids have to go to school to get an education. And so families that have immunocompromised kids or live with an immunocompromised family member, or an elderly grandparent, or an unvaccinated sibling? What are they supposed to do? There are a lot of families in that situation.”

Heighton hopes parents who have healthy children will think about the impact their child could have on another family.

“For those families who are saying, ‘My child is healthy and my family is healthy so I don’t need to wear a mask,’ the things is, out of collective care … how would you feel if you accidentally infected other kids just because you weren’t wearing a mask when you happened to be infectious?” 

Masks can be uncomfortable, but the uncomfortable truth is that having the choice whether or not to wear them is a privilege that many people don’t have, no matter what the latest mandates say.

And while everyone is free to make the choice they feel is best for their families, I hope we teach our children that the best choices are those made with the most information and with the consideration of what’s best for others as much as ourselves — no matter how uncomfortable that might temporarily be.