As the pandemic continues, vaccines remain unavailable for children aged 5 years and younger. In February, the Food and Drug Administration delayed approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for infants and children between six months and four years of age, citing that more data was needed. While a vaccine may be available within the next couple of months, parents continue to assess risk as mask and vaccine mandates also remain uncertain for the near future in Virginia.
Pfizer and its partner BioNTech first conducted early trials in December for two low doses of the vaccine, which showed that the two doses produced a lower immune response in 2 to 4-year-olds compared to 16 to 25-year-olds in previous clinical trials. In order to strengthen the two-dose vaccine, Pfizer-BioNTech began clinical trials for a three-dose version and submitted their results for FDA approval Feb. 1. The FDA intended to approve the vaccine in time for production to begin Feb. 21, but they have since stated that they expect to continue collecting data until April before authorizing the vaccine in order to ensure the vaccine is effective enough.
As Charlottesville parents continue to await a vaccine ensuring certain immune protection for their young children, continual challenges arise. Currently, the CDC states that unvaccinated individuals such as young children must stay home and quarantine for at least five full days after an exposure to COVID-19, and must continue watching for symptoms until 10 days have passed. Similarly, if these unvaccinated individuals test positive for COVID-19, the CDC advises that they isolate for at least five full days even if nonsymptomatic, and that they remain cautious until 10 days have passed. Meanwhile, fully vaccinated individuals are not required to quarantine unless they are symptomatic, although they are advised to follow the same isolation guidelines as unvaccinated individuals.
For Charlottesville speech therapist Matthew Gillikin, who is fully vaccinated alongside his wife, 10-year-old child and 6-year-old child, these discrepancies in quarantine periods can be significantly disruptive to his children’s education.
“It would mean that my daughter would have to come out of daycare for the entire period that one of us was sick and considered symptomatic,” Gillikin said. “So she’s in a situation where if one of us gets sick with COVID, she will miss at least two weeks of school — if not three — and that’s in a scenario where she doesn’t get sick.”
These sudden quarantine periods are also difficult on parents, who must arrange childcare while working at home or at their workplace, especially for those who do not have the local support or connections to guarantee assistance in case of an emergency.
Veronica Katz, research faculty in the School of Education, has a 3-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son who have had to quarantine four or five times since the beginning of the school year. While Katz is able to work both from home and in her office, she has to juggle caring for her children while they quarantine with her own schedule, especially when she cannot readily call someone to assist.
“I was having to make up work either late at night or early in the mornings, or coordinate with my husband and sort of try to steal a couple hours here and there, but it’s really, really challenging,” Katz said. “I don’t have backup care right, I don’t have somebody else I can call on to come watch the kids when they are home from school.”
From a community perspective, staying within bubbles and adhering to isolation and quarantine measures is isolating for young parents as well.
Tayyab Safdar, postdoctoral researcher in the Politics and East Asia Center, works from home. However, he and his wife moved to Charlottesville shortly before the pandemic began, and while their child is in daycare, they hold ongoing concerns about having local support in the case of quarantine or illness.
“We don’t have the same sort of roots,” Safdar said. “That’s an ongoing thing, you know, with not having any family around and without having that sort of support.”
Since the FDA decided to delay authorizing the COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5 years old and younger, the General Assembly of Virginia passed a bill banning school mask mandates on Feb. 14. Gov. Glenn Youngkin successfully added a provision to the bill requiring schools to comply by March 1 rather than July 1. Gov. Youngkin also continues to seek a federal exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers out of concern for staffing shortages.
Within Charlottesville, Charlottesville City schools still require masks to be worn on buses, but not in schools. Prior to the change in COVID-19 guidelines, some members of the community expressed concern about changes in mask mandates in schools.
Lindsey Tessada, head of volunteering and community group Hot Moms of Cville, provides a place for fellow moms to vent and share positive moments, while hosting free fitness classes over Instagram and leading monthly initiatives.
“[Teachers] are doing such a great job, and my friends that are educators within the school, they are all scared right now,” Tessada said. “They are so scared that this removal of the mandate is going to come into Charlottesville.”
On Feb. 22, President Jim Ryan announced the lifting of the University’s indoor masking requirement effective March 21, with exceptions for classrooms, health facilities and University Transit.
At the University, some faculty expressed confidence in the University’s policies prior to Ryan’s announcement. But with heightened precaution for their unvaccinated children, they remain watchful of evolving policy. As a faculty member, Safdar expressed concern about a lifted mask or vaccine mandate at the University.
“I haven’t come across anyone who doesn’t wear the mask while in class over the two semesters that we’ve had in person,” Safdar said. “But of course if the mandate is completely removed, there could be greater numbers of people who will not get vaccinated.”
However, since Ryan’s announcement and the passing of Gov. Youngkin’s amendment, Katz expressed gratitude for the masking policy remaining in classrooms.
“I am glad masks will still be required in classrooms, as this is where I am most exposed to people,” Katz said.
While mask and vaccine mandates may continue to change in the coming months, parents will still face ongoing risk assessment as their young children cannot be fully vaccinated. For these parents, the future of Charlottesville and its COVID-19 policies remain uncertain as a whole, but the need for community remains strong.