Anna Kettell Biddle watches Declan, her 3-year-old son, play in their Auburn home on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. He recently had to quarantine for the fifth time after being potentially exposed to COVID-19 in an example of lingering disruptions for families with young children. Credit: Michael Shepherd / BDN

Anna Kettell Biddle dropped her 3-year-old son Declan off at day care last month after a 10-day quarantine because of possible COVID-19 exposure.

The same day, the Auburn mother got another call. Her son had been exposed again and had to stay home for another 10 days.

It left Biddle and her husband scrambling to coordinate with his parents to ensure their son was cared for while both parents work. It was almost a rote exercise. The quarantine was their son’s fifth, and their 5-year-old daughter has had to quarantine four times.

“They have adapted to it really well, and they are not upset about it as some adults are,” Biddle said. “But it’s hard for them.”

Five-year-old Lucia Biddle smiles at the camera while her 3-year-old brother Declan speaks to their father, Keith Biddle, at their home in Auburn on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Credit: Michael Shepherd / BDN

Biddle is one of the many parents of young children whose lives are among those still most disrupted by a COVID-19 pandemic entering its third year. Many question whether an outsized burden has been unfairly shifted to families of kids under 5 who remain too young to be vaccinated or even those with older kids who have often been kept from in-person learning.

It comes as a broad push for “normal” permeates political discussion of the pandemic in an election year. After a January meeting in Washington, Gov. Janet Mills cited wide agreement between governors and President Joe Biden on returning to a “sense of stability and normalcy.” Republicans trying to replace her with former Gov. Paul LePage have hit the Democratic governor for early-pandemic mandates that states have now left behind.

But normal still remains an elusive idea for many parents. Maine saw more children infected with COVID-19 in January than any month prior, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The greatest increase in cases that month was among children younger than 5, who remain ineligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

Fortunately, the risk of severe COVID-19 among children is much lower than among adults. Since March 2020, kids younger than 20 have accounted for only around 2 percent of virus hospitalizations here. Only two in that age group have died. But disruptions still take their toll.

“When I see and I hear about lots of people going back to normal doing things again, I just wonder if they know that people with kids under five still feel very much like we’re living in 2020,” said Erin Skall of Gorham, mother to a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old.

She is another parent whose younger child had to go into a 10-day quarantine after being exposed in preschool last month. Officially, the state recommendations on COVID-19 exposure in schools and child care settings are similar to those for adults. Fully vaccinated kids do not have to isolate unless they test positive. Unvaccinated kids who are considered a close contact are supposed to quarantine for five days, and mask for five days after that.

But many young children are either not old enough to be vaccinated or cannot keep masks on all the time, leading many to stick with 10-day quarantines. While early in the pandemic, a federal law required many employers to offer paid leave related to COVID-19, including time for parents who needed to stay home with a quarantining child, that law expired at the end of 2020. A tax credit aimed at incentivizing employers to continue the practice also expired last fall.

Schools largely use the five-day standard. But it still leaves families with fewer options in the event of possible exposure or a positive test, especially when both parents are working. It is something Lara Rosen of Portland thinks about every time her 6-year-old son, Isaac, participates in pooled testing at his elementary school.

In the first year of the pandemic, Rosen’s husband, who works as a FedEx courier, shifted his schedule so he could be at home to help their son with hybrid learning. He is now working during the day, leaving the family with fewer options if Isaac were required to isolate.

“The anxiety level has been like right back up to where it was, but without the support,” she said.

When her daughters were participating in hybrid learning during the first year of the pandemic, Sarah Carrier of Arundel saw most of her paychecks as an ed tech go toward child care. Under different circumstances, she would have relied on their grandparents, but she did not want to risk exposing them to the virus.

Her daughters, now 13 and 10, are back in school full-time. But Carrier has used up all her sick leave after both she and her younger daughter separately contracted the virus.

“If my older daughter gets COVID, what am I going to do?” she said.

Three-year-old Declan Biddle plays with a toy guitar at his family’s home in Auburn on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Credit: Michael Shepherd / BDN

Maine has updated its COVID-19 recommendations for schools several times in the past few months. Schools are no longer required to contract trace cases, regardless of masking policies. Amid indications that the virus is once again waning in Maine, the Maine CDC also recently indicated it would revisit its guidance on masks in schools after the February break, potentially making it easier for schools to lift mask mandates.

Skall said the possibility that her kindergartener, who is fully vaccinated, would no longer have to wear a mask, left her “grateful” to think that he might soon have a more typical schooling experience. That would not be true for her 3-year-old, who still can’t get the vaccine after federal regulators opted to delay consideration of a vaccine for younger kids until at least April.

She still grapples with activities her youngest has missed out on, like playgroups and library storytimes. She grows frustrated thinking about sacrifices kids have made over the past two years, only to feel like most adults are no longer expected to protect them.

“It’s just been so disappointing that people in the older age bracket, people that are vaccinated, just want to go back to normal,” Skall said, “when they could be returning that favor and continuing to be cautious and mask in public and get vaccinated in order to protect little kids who still don’t have a choice.”