8 to 3: As California slowly opens up, parents weigh the risks of social interaction


This is the May 10, 2021, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

It was little more than a week ago, about 10 minutes to 6 a.m., when I was summoned to my 5-year-old’s room by an all-too-familiar complaint.

“I don’t feel good.”

The moment I touched him, I knew he had a fever. Soon, he was vomiting. And while such symptoms have been familiar to me since his first weeks in infant day care, we hadn’t felt a fever or made a bed of towels by the toilet since the start of quarantine. Now, these ordinary childhood ailments were suffused with new terror.

We were fortunate to get a phone appointment with his doctor that morning, and a nasal swab by the afternoon. But for the 24 hours until his PCR test came back, I found myself obsessively reviewing almost every interaction he’d had in the last two weeks. Could he have shared snacks at his masked play date? Or a water bottle at backyard soccer? What happened at the birthday party his father had chaperoned?

Even a month ago, such questions would have been unfathomable. Like millions of other parents around the country, we’d kept our son cloistered since last spring, warning him away from unmasked children on the playground and replacing closed beaches with an inflatable kiddie pool in our apartment’s parking lot. We’d given up almost our entire social life to stay safe — even our public religious observance, which we’d been set to resume that week.


But with infection rates at record lows and vaccines soon to be offered to kids as young as 12, parents have entered a new phase of risk assessment. How should we weigh our children’s need for social interaction and our own desire to hang out with them in public against the real — if much diminished — risks of COVID?

If you’re like us, you’ve seen a sharp uptick in the number of invitations this month. After all, almost 50% of Californians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, including roughly half of Angelenos and more than half of residents in Ventura and Orange counties. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is safe for vaccinated adults to do things such as eat together indoors, go maskless outside except in large crowds, and travel without having to quarantine after.

But what about our unvaccinated children? How should you evaluate what is safe — and more important, what your family is ready for?

Dr. Anuradha G. Seshadri, a pediatrician at UCLA, told me the most important question parents should ask in trying to decide whether a birthday party or a soccer game is safe is whether it’s being held in a neighborhood where COVID rates are high. Parents can use our coronavirus tracker to see the latest infection details by ZIP code.

The next most important questions are how many people will be together, what environment they will be in, and whether they are likely to be vaccinated.

“Try to attend gatherings that are outside, in well-ventilated areas, and not too crowded,” the pediatrician told me. “Stick to people that you know are staying safe.”

But trust varies in social circles, and “crowded” is more of a vibe than a medical term of art. In talking to other parents, I got the sense that we understood and accepted the same set of rules, but that we’d been interpreting them in different ways.


For Fatmah Muhammad, who runs the popular dessert business Knafeh Queens in Orange County, trust was the most important metric. Because she knows that the adults in her extended family are vaccinated, Muhammad feels safe taking her children to their 200-person Eid gathering this week. (Eid marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.)

“I think 99% of the adults are vaccinated,” the Rancho Cucamonga mom told me when we caught up by phone last week. “We can’t go another Eid and not get together.”

A year ago, she feared her children would be silent spreaders. Now, she told me, that risk feels remote. Holding this year’s festivities outdoors added a layer of comfort to a ritual they felt they couldn’t miss.

“We did feel like the kids were going to make it or break it for us, that they’ll be the ones to bring COVID into the house,” Muhammad said. “Now people are like, ‘Hey, let’s get together, the kids want to see each other.’ We see a huge difference.”

Outdoor gatherings have become the default as more and more families venture back into the world. For many, location is now the deciding factor. But others are still shying from large groups.

“We hadn’t had any gatherings [before April],” said Mount Washington dad Ted Cannon, who held an outdoor birthday party for his 8-year-old son last month. “In the past we’d invite all of our family, as well as his friends. This year, I think we had six kids.”

Although the party itself was “undramatic,” he told me the emerging new social rules have been confusing and stressful to navigate.

“That’s been a personal struggle — what is reasonable caution?” he said. “It’s hard to know at what level you’re being too cautious and depriving them of something that would be completely safe.”

Among the many complicating factors is that COVID-19 is often extremely mild in children, with symptoms that closely mimic the common cold, or a stomach flu. A tiny fraction of youngsters go on to develop more serious complications, like long COVID, or the rare and treatable inflammatory condition MIS-C. Those risks are what made my son’s fever so terrifying.

But Dr. Seshadri explained that just because I’m more afraid of COVID, that doesn’t mean it’s the only infection my kid can get.

“I have to remind parents, just because COVID’s out there doesn’t mean other viruses have taken a vacation,” she said.

Indeed, just a few days before he got sick, I’d let my son play unmasked with the children downstairs, who’d invited him to join their martial arts class in the yard. Turns out, one of them had a stomach bug. Probably, we picked it up from a shared toy or door handle, the same way our kids got germs before.

Still, for us, it was a wake-up call.

“You don’t need to be swayed by everyone around you,” Dr. Seshadri reminded me. “If you remain calm as parents, you also empower [your children] to keep themselves safe.”

How are you coping? Write us at and tell us how you decide what’s safe for your children, and what kind of socializing they’re doing.

When a story starts like this, how can a parent resist?

“This is the story of a journey from ignorance to understanding. It’s about questioning beliefs, and radical rethinking. It’s about parenthood and childhood and the pandemic.

“But ultimately, it’s about video games.”

My colleague Deborah Netburn shared how she came to relate to her 12-year-old son.

A woman and a boy sit on a couch, as he plays a video game
Deborah Netburn plays the video game Undertale with her son.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

But the digital age brings far more than game time to parenting issues. Should a student be disciplined by teachers for online postings?

The nation’s highest court heard its most important case in decades on the 1st Amendment rights of students — and ultimately will decide whether young people are free in the era of social media to post vulgar, cruel or racist comments about their teacher. David Savage, who covers the Supreme Court for The Times, reported how justices were struggling with the issue.

A longer school year? Not in Los Angeles

Educators say much work is ahead to stem pandemic learning loss. But a longer school year in Los Angeles is not in the offing amid lackluster support.

What’s more, many California families are saying no to reopened campuses.

While the majority of California schools reopened their buildings this spring, a majority of middle and high school students and parents took one look at all the restrictions and rules, weighed their lingering pandemic fears and said no thanks, they are staying home, our education team reports

And the stats in the nation’s second-largest school district are even more worrisome: Only 7% of high schoolers decided to return. My colleague Howard Blume will be writing more about the ramifications of the low attendance this week.

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Here’s what else we’re reading

Remember the “lean in” days? The pandemic has ushered in “lean out” sentiments among many working mothers, the Atlantic reports.

We’ve written in the past about “math wars.” Now Jill Tucker of the San Francisco Chronicle says they’re heating up again, with state officials considering a delay in offering Algebra 1 from middle school until high school. There would be less of an emphasis on calculus later on. Tucker writes: “The goal is a deeper understanding of concepts rather than a race through memorized skill sets, supporters say. Critics, however, question whether the effort will be an attempt to sacrifice advanced students on the altar of equity.”

You’ve heard of “The Magic School Bus.” Now get ready for the electric school bus. The L.A. Daily News reports that Sen. Alex Padilla is among those supporting LAUSD’s plans to convert its fleet of buses to electricity.

Finally, parents whose kids have dived deep into fandom, be it of movies, games, books or whatever, will want to read about Amy Ratcliffe’s new book, “A Kid’s Guide to Fandom: Exploring Fan-Fic, Cosplay, Gaming, Podcasting, and More in the Geek World!” Alan Yu spoke to Ratcliffe and writes about her book at KQED-TV’s “Mind/Shift.”

I want to hear from you.

Have feedback? Ideas? Questions? Story tips? Email me. And keep in touch on Twitter.