“Our plan had always been to go to New Zealand once our kids were in university or out of the house,” Cary said. “But it took the pandemic for my husband to say, ‘Enough is enough. We’re getting out.’ ”
The decision to move across the globe, Cary said, was partially motivated by questions of health and safety. But like many parents across the United States tapping a second passport as September looms and U.S. case numbers of the virus continue to climb, access to a classroom was the true catalyst.
“They aren't developing the social skills they need because the only other people they see are their parents,” said Cary, who will begin the process of enrolling his three children in school as soon as he arrives in New Zealand. “To be able to let them interact with the kids their own age, to have a peer group and conversations on their level — it’s what they need.”
The U.S. government does not keep an official tally of how many of its citizens hold second passports, but estimates run as high as 40 million. And it’s even less clear how many will use those passports to get their kids back into physical classrooms for the 2020-2021 school year. But some are.
Sandra Brinkman was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States when she was 24. She is now 40. Her husband, Adam, does not speak German, but their son, Jonas, 6, is nearly fluent.
The family was living in Denver, and Jonas was thriving in his kindergarten when covid-19 hit. Brinkman, who runs her own business as a postpartum doula, stopped working and began spending the days at home with her son. As the weeks dragged into months, the prospect of returning home to Hamburg, where a robust public health system and a data-driven approach to social distancing have kept the disease at bay, began to feel promising. Schools in Germany were due to fully reopen in the fall, and Brinkman knew, as a German citizen, Jonas could be enrolled in first grade if they just got on a plane. They flew to Hamburg in late July.
“There’s so much isolation for kids right now, and they need their peers,” Brinkman said. “But we wouldn’t be comfortable sending him to school here in the U.S. right now, and the online option is also not ideal.”
And for many couples, covid-19 was a final straw on top of a bale of political and social unrest. Jennifer Leavitt-Moy, who is Chinese American, says she and her Nicaraguan American husband had been discussing for a long time moving their family to Canada, where Leavitt-Moy’s mother grew up.
“It’s been on the table for years,” she said of their move and her worries about how her boys — Phoenix, 8, Justice, 4, and another baby on the way — will be treated in the United States because of their race. “But the major difference this year is covid.”
The family drove to Montreal on Aug. 1, where they spent two weeks in quarantine while Leavitt-Moy and her husband began the paperwork to establish permanent residency. It feels, she said, like an escape. “The Canadian government has taken covid so much more seriously and has been so much more proactive.”
Other couples are gearing up for a long separation to enroll their kids in school. Claire McKenzie Langhorne grew up in Devon, England, and moved to New York in 2010. She holds a U.S. green card. Her husband, Kester, was born in Guyana and came to New York City as a child; he is a dual citizen.
They now live in Hoboken, N.J., with their daughter, Cassidy, 4, who has citizenship in both the United States and the United Kingdom, and with Kester’s daughter (Claire’s stepdaughter) Cheyenne, 18, who has citizenship only in the United States.
In March, when Cassidy’s preschool closed, Claire, an executive at the cosmetic packaging conglomerate KDC/ONE, found herself juggling conference calls and virtual presentations at home with an antsy 4-year-old. She decided to temporarily fly back to Devon with Cassidy and stay with her parents while Kester stayed behind with Cheyenne.
But four months later, Cassidy has made friends in the U.K. and joined an outdoor day care called Muddy Boots. And they’re planning on staying for the indefinite future — Cassidy is now enrolled to start school in the U.K. on Sept. 7. Claire and Kester have decided that when she does return to the United States, they will be moving out of Hoboken and back to New York City, but they want to wait until they know that New York schools, which are currently planning a high-stakes reopening model that mixes virtual and in-person learning, can open fully in person.
“Cassidy is one of the most social children I know. And she’s just desperate for friends and interaction,” Langhorne said. “And children learn through play at this age. They play, they interact, they socialize, and that's how they learn. The virtual learning — it wasn't getting us anywhere."
Having an alternative country to jump to is a privilege, says Sara Goodman, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine, who studies immigration and citizenship. But it’s not necessarily a privilege of income.
“We can’t assume everyone with a second passport is wealthier, and both developed and developing countries allow for dual citizenship. But what exacerbates the inequality here is the ability to do your own job remotely,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended the school market as a whole, Goodman points out, with many families moving across state lines for the upcoming year, or switching to private school or home-schooling at rates never seen before. “This phenomenon of being able to go abroad is just an extension of that school market,” she said. “If we prioritize our kids and we take their needs seriously, then for some families that means we cannot stay where we are.”
Cary flew with his children to New Zealand on Aug. 9, just before a handful of new coronavirus cases prompted a fresh lockdown in Auckland. While completing two weeks of mandatory isolation in a hotel with his family, he said it was refreshing to be in a country that took the virus so seriously. They are now settling near Hawke’s Bay on the country’s north island, and he plans to enroll his children in school in the next two weeks.
“I have these three little humans, and my one job in life is to keep them safe and healthy,” he said. “And with this pandemic, I have the ability to take them to a country where covid is not going to be a threat. I would be bereft as a parent if I didn’t take that opportunity.”
Debra Kamin is an award-winning freelance journalist based in San Diego.