COVID-19 and the Working Parent

I have a luxury. I am in graduate school. As I observe the number of COVID-19 infections grow by ten thousand each week, and hear of regional lockdowns, major conference cancellations, and school closures, I take a minute to consider what it might mean if my children’s school closed.

COVID-19 and the Working Parent

What to do if the schools closed

I have a luxury. I am in graduate school. As I observe the number of COVID-19 infections grow by ten thousand each week, and hear of regional lockdowns, major conference cancellations, and school closures, I take a minute to consider what it might mean if my children’s school closed.

Thankfully, I am in a position to be home, mostly, to monitor them and goad them through whatever online substitute curriculum the district or my family conceives of. But not everyone is.

And, despite the old trope of kids dancing down the halls on the last day of school, not everyone is glad when the doors close behind them. According to the New York Times, there were 114,085 homeless children in New York City public schools in 2019.

The National Center for Children in Poverty says fifty-six percent of NYC children live in low-income households.

Think about how these children will be affected if their schools closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

For low-income children, school is not only a place to learn, but it is a center for social services. It is where they get reliable meals, a visit with a nurse, sometimes a dental cleaning, support from a social worker, and build and maintain community bonds of peer friendship and support from a mentor. And, yes, of course, they are presented with learning opportunities throughout the day.

Children with stable homes and a working parent are in potential trouble, too. What about that single working parent with a job in some middle-class industry? Will they have the luxury (and temperament) of staying home with young children to oversee them, to teach them, to entertain them? For a week, two weeks, four weeks? Six?

Even dual-parent households — it is likely that both parents work. Is one of their jobs disposable enough to be put on hold for an indefinite time period so they can stay and monitor or teach the children?

I know the answer. It’s no. Canceling a conference is one thing — a major financial hit to a region, and a shame. But closing schools? Not only would that be financially disruptive to a regional economy, but it could also be devastating to thousands of households, people who cannot stay home from work, who are depended on to make money and pay the bills, key employees who are essential to the functioning of a business, hourly workers and independent contractors, small business owners and those holding down more than one gig.

You are probably wondering what the answer is, and since I am working on a graduate degree, I guess I can be arrogant enough to presume to offer one. After all, coming up with answers to hypothetical situations is one of the things graduate schools train students to do, especially in my chosen field of public policy. So here is my take.

Don’t close the schools. It is an imperfect answer to a challenging situation. But let me add that many parents and their school-aged children are already struggling through challenging situations that existed before COVID-19. Our society has chosen to turn away from them. Had we been hearing their needs, we might not be faced with this difficult problem that is quickly coming at us.

EDIT March 13, 2020: Excellent discussion starter from American Progress on recommendations regarding school closings and the Coronavirus. Meals, technology, special needs care, extending the school schedule. “… As of March 11, 2020, there are more than 1,500 schools closed or scheduled to close out of the more than 130,000 public and private schools nationwide” affecting more than one million of the 55 million children in the US. They provide the recommendation to close schools. All decisions must be arrived at after deliberations occur through the lens of equity, the author states, which is the issue I much less capably try to articulate in my piece here on Medium.

What if we already addressed emergency paid leave for hourly workers? The question of parents having to stay home to monitor young children if schools closed might not be such a massively complex issue. Industries would lose, but they stand to lose anyway if a school closes while destroying family savings and income along the way. And guess who the government is most likely to bail out? Large businesses, not individuals who also lost.

What if we already had a health care system that did not gouge the needy and penalize the sick, but instead actively worked to prevent illness? Transitioning such a system to offering free COVID-19 screenings might not be so challenging, rather than having people rely on emergency rooms when they think they may have symptoms.

What if we already had a robust social services network to address homelessness and the food, housing, and other security needs of low-income households? Maybe the burden of providing these essential human needs wouldn’t be shouldered on the backs of school districts, and they could focus on providing finding remote ways to provide instruction rather than acting as a last-ditch food bank, clinic, and mental health care facility.

As frantic shoppers battle it out over bundles of toilet paper, I’m over in the toy aisle, alone, browsing the board games. I’ll be delighted to host a little Dungeons & Dragons campaign with my kids, just after we log off from an online educational service and close our tutoring workbooks. Then we can maybe head down to the park a block away to run off our energy before I prepare them healthy snacks.

But that’s my luxury. Not everyone will be able to share that schedule if the schools close. Not everyone has a food pantry already stocked, ready to self-quarantine if the need arises. Internet. A third-floor game room. Availability to stay home and teach and play with their kids.

Time is long overdue for us to look at how we support the poor, listen to their needs and stop ignoring them. Education is for all, so let all children share in the opportunity to be educated. Let teachers teach. Let schools be schools. While I recognize the value of offering some social services in school buildings, meeting children where their need is, also let us be clear that the schools are providing the preponderance of services now for low income or homeless students, not because it is expedient for the student but out of necessity — because no one else is.

The federal government of Italy has suspended all mortgage and debt payments, which is a great consideration when every household is forbidden from milling about in the public sphere, going to work, earning a living. Will our government be so kind, even in that most practical and simple gesture?

If this virus serves a purpose other than bubbling the stock for hand sanitizer, let that purpose be that it holds a mirror to our face as a society. We need to see how ugly we sometimes are to our most vulnerable, to our children, to our working parents. Ideally, we would already have support services in place to help those in need, especially during times of national crises. But we don’t. We’ve cut, trimmed, and reallocated budgets meant to help the powerless, to help those who have no voice calling out to power on their behalf.

So now we must leave the schools open so those children who need it can eat, be safe, learn, play, and be with trusted adults. The consequences could be terrible, but that is the situation we have created for ourselves by allowing policies that are callous to the poor.

EDIT March 16 2020: All schools must now close! We have moved beyond the strategy of containment and must embrace a strategy of isolation. The outbreak has proliferated through the US and the number of infected is expected to double weekly. At this point, we must close not only schools, but all non essential services.