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Is it safe? Parents worry about risks as schools, camps reopen

Parents sending kids back into the world feel their own separation anxiety.

Don’t touch that. Wash your hands for 30 seconds. Where’s your mask? Six feet, please.

Parents who spent the last year carefully protecting their children from the COVID-19 pandemic are now being asked to send them back to daycare, school and camps, all without the benefit of vaccines. It's cause for celebration, but also, for many, worry.

As life resumes some normal rhythms, the world seems split among those who can’t wait to get back to “normal” and those who remain wary, even anxious, about returning to life as we knew it. For parents, there’s the added worry about unvaccinated children.

More than 50 parents across the country surveyed by TODAY said they had mixed feelings sending their kids into the world. Some were "thrilled" to get kids back in school, but for others, the risks felt too high.

"I am very concerned about allowing my kids to be around people who don’t follow precautions to the same extent we have," said Katey Howes, a writer and mother of three in Eastern Pennsylvania. "Because of that, we’ve mostly made plans to participate in activities with families we know and with good supervision — and outdoors as much as possible."

By necessity, the pandemic turned even laid back, free-range parents into protective helicopters. Now many are left wondering, what is an acceptable level of risk? How do we get back to letting kids face danger?

Parents are hearing mixed messages from public health experts, said Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown who has been writing about COVID risks for kids at COVID-Explained.

“I think parents are excited about some return to normalcy but also finding everything very confusing. The messaging around kids is really split between ‘they are low risk’ and ‘they're unvaccinated so you still can't do anything,’” said Oster, author of a new book about family decision-making, "The Family Firm." “There are reasons why these can coexist, but it's not easy for us all to grasp, and it's frustrating.”

Oster said the COVID risk for children is small, and the risk will fall further as vaccination rates rise.

For many, the psychological effects of isolation are enough to overcome any fear of COVID.

"I think the faster the kids get back to school the better," said Gina Urso, a mother of five ages 11 to 26. She said her younger children have not been learning well in remote school, and her 19-year-old missed out on prom and graduation, only to be isolated in her dorm room at college.

Families are left to weigh their own risks, factoring in underlying conditions, like asthma, that might make a child more vulnerable to COVID, or mental health risks, like anxiety, that might argue in favor of more connection.

The result is a hodge-podge. Some parents said they feel comfortable only socializing with fully vaccinated adults. Some are OK with outdoor camps — but only with masks and temperature checks.

Some said they'd send kids to school, but not other group activities like swimming. Some prefer outdoor activities, but are keeping school remote.

And most said they felt nervous or hesitant about the activities they were allowing.

"It will be some time before we fully trust things again," said Kriselle Laran, a mother of two in California. She's worried not only about the virus, but also about the effects of extended isolation on the community.

"I’m concerned that people’s general well-being is poor, making it more likely for drug or violence issues at school," she said. "On top of that, my kids are half Asian, making it even more difficult to trust their safety outside of the home."

Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, said she's seeing more separation anxiety as vaccinated parents venture out of the home again — and not just for the kids.

"The parents are a little anxious. They’re eager to get out, but they’re leaving their child with somebody again," said Klein, author of "How Toddlers Thrive." "You have to have a bit of armor on all the time."

After a year on heightened alert, it's difficult for some parents to put their guard down until kids are vaccinated. Children can still spread the virus, and because we don't know long-term effects, parents aren't solely worried about deaths when they worry about COVID.

Still, especially as vaccines become available to younger children, parents are optimistic.

Asked how they feel about sending kids out into the world, parents expressed both jitters and optimism to TODAY, often in one breath. "Nervous but hopeful." "Relieved and worried." "Terrified, but hopeful." "Nervous, but more excited than anything else."

Lindsay Leslie, a mother of two in Austin, Texas, said getting vaccinated and understanding the risks made her feel ready to get back out there "in a reasonable way," though you won't catch her at a concert or other large event.

"We understand the risk factors now and know that life in this virtually, holed-up existence is not sustainable," she said.

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