It is now abundantly clear that the pandemic has had extremely negative consequences on the lives and careers of working mothers across the globe, and women in science are no exception. As the academic year approaches, many schools and universities in the U.S. have failed to put in place mask or vaccine mandates. This lack of protection places parents in an agonizing position of trying to keep their children safe while maintaining productive careers, and once again, women and historically excluded groups will bear the brunt of the losses that this situation imposes.

Failure to impose mask mandates is a blatantly antiscience decision that places the young and vulnerable in direct risk. For children too young for vaccination, exposure to even mild infections can have devastating consequences. Although many universities have, commendably, imposed mask and vaccine mandates, many others are trailing behind or dragging their feet on making a decision. Many institutions are planning to imminently open their campuses without these protections, or any other protections that were in place last year, such as physical distancing, mandated testing and the cancellation of large in-person events.

We at 500 Women Scientists implore those in leadership positions at schools, universities and workplaces that have not reimposed mask mandates to reexamine their positions on masking, and with science as a guide, act to put these protections in place given the pandemic resurgence. This is the bare minimum of protections that together could alleviate the extreme stress on caregivers, and ensure some safety to those most vulnerable in our population, especially until COVID-19 vaccines are approved for children under the age of 12.

THE SCIENCE IS CLEAR: MASKS WORK

There is clear guidance from science on the appropriate course of action for K–12 schools, as well as colleges and universities, as infection rates continue to skyrocket with the rise of the Delta variant. We have an abundance of evidence that masks decrease the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

For adults aged 18–29, only 38 percent of individuals in the U.S. were vaccinated by the end of May. Student travel back to campuses, combined with the low vaccination rates for this demographic, will undeniably bring the Delta variant into circulation at every academic institution without vaccine mandates. Indeed, this is all happening before most of the student population has returned to in-person classes. With the Delta variant’s transmissibility at least twice that of previously circulating variants, a lack of masking and distancing protocols will rapidly endanger student populations as well as the entire communities surrounding college campuses.

Infection rates soared on college campuses in the fall 2020 semester even with mask mandates, distancing, mostly online courses and a much less transmissible variant. Without any of these protections in place, and with a much more transmissible variant, those of us who work at schools and universities that are failing to impose these safety measures are bracing for the worst. Not all are in a position to be able to openly advocate for science-based decision-making—particularly those who are not in permanent positions, or who do not have a choice between working in-person or remotely. This includes graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty, staff, and early-career individuals who often must navigate sensitive workplace dynamics, especially people who belong to historically excluded communities, such as those who are Black, Indigenous and/or people of color (BIPOC).

Vaccinated individuals are not immune to risk either; given high infection rates and high transmissibility, high rates of COVID-19 exposure in vaccinated individuals will lead to numerous breakthrough infections, including vaccinated caregivers bringing the variant home to susceptible children. While breakthrough infections are not nearly as common as infections in unvaccinated individuals, those who are immunocompromised or who have previous medical conditions are at a significantly higher risk.

THE PANDEMIC ISN’T OVER HERE—OR ANYWHERE

Although we are ready for the pandemic to be over, alarming increases in the rates of COVID-19 infection, particularly in communities with low vaccination rates, make it clear that we are far from the end of COVID-19’s spread. We know that as viral population sizes increase, their adaptive potential increases, and therefore it becomes more likely that newly harmful viral strains will emerge—greatly endangering the progress we have made thus far in combatting the pandemic with vaccination. To successfully depress viral evolution, transmission and infection rates must decrease. Breakthrough infections in vaccinated people are particularly harmful breeding grounds for variants that will evade the vaccines—making high exposure rates for these individuals a particularly dangerous cocktail. Thus, the protocols we put in place now not only influence our immediate health, but will determine the future trajectory of the pandemic.

Parents of children too young to be vaccinated, and caregivers of the immunocompromised, were thrown under the bus with the CDC’s May guidance that mask mandates be lifted for the vaccinated. In an unmasked world where it was impossible to know whether others were actually vaccinated or not, many of us with children, particularly those too young to wear masks, felt as though we were placed back in the earlier stages of the pandemic, where no public settings felt remotely safe. And indeed, as mask wearing became a thing of the past, other respiratory illnesses and sicknesses have exploded in children, further stressing parents before schools return and overburdening hospital systems with cases, independent of COVID-19 infections.

The current failure of academic institutions to reimpose mask mandates puts parents in an agonizing position. Given the rising infection rates and the greater danger of transmission, our unvaccinated children are at risk in all public settings, even with brief contact with infected individuals. As parents are being forced back into in-person work and teaching, accommodations that had been put in place earlier in the pandemic, such as flexibility with working location and hours, have evaporated. Parents are thus faced with excruciating decisions about how to maintain their careers while caring for their families. Mothers are being forced out of the workforce, but are also choosing to leave it in favor of keeping their children safe. These losses fall disproportionately on Black and Latinx mothers.

At institutions without mask and vaccine mandates, there are no good solutions for parents put into this position. Parents could choose to keep their children at home. But this deceptively simple solution is fraught with caveats: there are either prohibitive childcare fees to reckon with, or parents must attempt to balance working remotely while parenting—which is stressful for all involved, as we know from firsthand experience last year. If parents choose to send their children to school, they place their child in direct risk of contracting COVID-19 from their unmasked or unvaccinated peers, and their teachers.

To make matters more stressful, for parents working at institutions without COVID-19 protections, they risk exposure from maskless or unvaccinated students and colleagues, and are faced with the possibility of bringing breakthrough infections home. In addition, this is even more complicated for children with comorbidities who cannot safely be in school without vaccinations. Many parents of high-risk kids have no choice but to keep their children home, in virtual or home school, while attempting to balance work obligations and keeping their families safe, with no end to the pandemic in sight. 

In addition to the direct risk of infection for unvaccinated children and the immunocompromised, the pandemic has placed women under disproportionate amounts of mental stress, with negative consequences to their health. If working mothers were not at their breaking points last year, they certainly are now.

HOW TO PROTECT STUDENTS, STAFF, FACULTY AND COMMUNITIES

Given the gravity of the current COVID-19 situation, immediate action is needed by those in leadership positions on several fronts, including:

  • Reinstate indoor mask mandates immediately at all K–12 schools, colleges and universities. Even in places where infection rates are not yet high, vaccination rates in the U.S. are insufficient to combat the Delta variant’s high transmissibility. Do not wait for infection rates to rise to dangerous levels before reinstating masking regulations; this unnecessarily sacrifices the health and safety of our most vulnerable members of society.
  • Require COVID-19 vaccination for eligible on-campus students, faculty and staff at academic institutions. Voluntary vaccination rates for the college student demographic are too low to effectively combat highly transmissible variants, putting all college campus communities without vaccine mandates at high risk. To increase vaccination rates, institutions should lower barriers to vaccine access using mobile clinics and other proven methods of outreach, such as “hub and spoke” testing in the Just Project. Vaccination requirements are complicated in many cases by political and legal issues; we encourage those in leadership positions to push toward science-based decision making, which clearly lies in favor of vaccination.
  • Conduct rigorous testing of individuals on college campuses. Particularly for campuses without vaccine mandates, rigorous testing is crucial for protecting the community. Although it is expensive, costs vary based on the specific testing arrangements of each campus, and some approaches, like pooled tests, can decrease costs markedly while allowing for rigorous surveillance of the campus population. The CDC provides clear guidance to administrators on effective testing strategies given the prevalence of viral transmission, and recommends universal screening prior to the start of the term, and weekly screening in cases of moderate transmission (10–49 new cases per 100,000 over the past seven days), and twice-weekly testing for scenarios of substantial or high transmission (50 or more new cases per 100,000 over the past seven days),
  • Take steps to ensure classrooms and work spaces are safe, including implementing physical distancing. Reinstate distancing requirements in college classrooms; and for classes too large for effective distancing, move to online delivery. Provide ventilation for all classrooms, such as opening windows or installing air purification systems. The combination of masking and improved ventilation has led to clearly decreased transmission rates in U.S. elementary schools. In some cases where it is appropriate, the option of outdoor learning may also decrease transmission.
  • Provide all students the option for online-only participation in courses. Students with caregiving responsibilities also face excruciating decisions about balancing their children’s safety with their ongoing education. We must protect our earliest-career scientists from lost educational opportunities. This may mean that classrooms will be a hybrid mix of live lectures, seminars and discussions for those in the room, with alternative options for those who are unable to attend in person. It is also important to note that these delivery modes pose additional challenges for instructors, and this should be taken into account when considering accommodations and releases from some responsibilities for faculty and teachers who have been strongly impacted by the pandemic.
  • At colleges and universities, reinstate flexibility with regard to working location and hours, particularly for women with caregiving responsibilities. Provide instructors the latitude to change courses to online delivery as desired or required in order to accommodate quarantine and isolation procedures. Release parents with caregiving responsibilities from service tasks when possible, and continue to provide options for clock stops on reappointment and tenure decisions. Flex hours and time banks with hours for COVID-related paid time off can also be important resources for caregivers navigating uncertainty in their schedules. Support programs to boost early-career scientist support, such as funding for extending postdoctoral research, and publication opportunities for women impacted by COVID disruptions. Additional programs and resources should be created to support BIPOC communities, particularly mothers, targeting issues underlying the differential loss of these individuals from the workforce.
  • Use clear and creative communication to encourage vaccination and masking. Creative public health communication campaigns may be highly beneficial for increasing vaccination rates in student populations, and increasing acceptance of masking protocols. In states where vaccine mandates are difficult politically, such campaigns will be especially crucial for increasing the safety of college campuses. In addition, historical and present-day actions of medical systems have created distrust in some communities, including BIPOC and other historically excluded groups. Addressing the lower vaccination rates within these communities requires scientists and academic institutions to take responsibility for their role in maintaining systems that create medical mistrust. Creative, community-informed public health messaging campaigns are one beginning step in this work. Increasing representation of BIPOC in science and medicine is also crucial.

This fall, parents are faced with an excruciating decision: How do they maintain their careers, while keeping their children and loved ones safe? Rather than forcing parents and other caregivers to make an impossible choice, we ask that individuals holding leadership positions at schools, colleges and universities step up and address the concerns faced by their colleagues. What will you do to protect our collective health today, and ensure the retention of a diverse and talented STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math, medicine) workforce?

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Contributors to this essay

Catherine (Katie) Wagner (she/her/hers) is an evolutionary biologist who studies processes contributing to the origins and maintenance of earth's biodiversity. She holds a Ph.D/ in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University, and a B.A .in biology-geology from Whitman College. She is currently an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming. She is on Twitter @cewagnerlab.

Elizabeth (Liz) McCullagh (she/her/hers) is a neuroscientist who specializes in how animals, including humans, process sound location information in the brain. Her education is in biology with her B.S. and M.S. from Virginia Tech and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois Chicago. She is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oklahoma State University. Liz is an advocate for parental issues in the workplace, and co-founder of Milk and Cookies, a lactation support group on the University of Colorado Anschutz campus. She is also on Twitter @ZaarlyLiz.

Tanya Dapkey (she/her/hers) is an entomologist who studies macroinvertebrates in freshwater ecosystems as bioindicators of water quality. Her masters is from the University of Pennsylvania where she integrated stream ecology and DNA barcoding. She currently works at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. She is also on Twitter @tanyadapkey.

Farah Qaiser (she/her/hers) is a genomics researcher who uses DNA sequencing to better understand complex neurological disorders, and carries out policy-related research. Amid the pandemic, Farah defended her masters in molecular genetics at the University of Toronto in Canada. She serves on 500 Women Scientists’ Leadership Team, and can also be found on Twitter: @this_is_farah.

Nicole Williams (she/her/hers) is a marine scientist, diversity and inclusion practitioner, and an advocate for policies that improve the well-being and health of self-identifying African American women. She holds a Masters of Science degree from Hawai’i Pacific University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology from Wittenberg University in Ohio. Nicole is the Director of Outreach at 500 Women Scientists, and manages the Gage database, which is the world’s largest community of women and gender diverse individuals in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM). She is also the co-founder of the Black Women’s Collective which was formed from the necessity for Black women in STEMM to advocate for progress and accountability while uplifting Black women in their science and advocacy work.

Susan J. Cheng (she/her/hers) is a forest ecologist and instructional consultant specializing in data analytics, assessment, and instruction of undergraduate courses. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and leads research projects in two intertwined strands of scholarship: understanding how ecology shapes Earth’s climate, and how classroom climate shapes student learning. She is on the leadership team for 500 Women Scientists and serves on the American Geophysical Union’s Education Section committee. You can follow her on Twitter @susanjcheng.

Theresa Jedd is an American political scientist who researches water and drought policy and teaches about environmental politics and civil society in Munich, Germany. She earned degrees from the University of Wyoming and Colorado State University and completed her postdoctoral research at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. She is amazed every day by her children’s resilience during the pandemic. 

…as well as members of 500 Women Scientists who wish not to be listed.