Last week, I received an email from my children’s principal, sharing some of the first details about plans to reopen New York City schools this fall. The message explained that the city’s Department of Education, following federal guidelines, will require each student to have 65 square feet of classroom space. Not everyone will be allowed in the building at once. The upshot is that my children will be able to physically attend school one out of every three weeks.
At the same time, many adults — at least the lucky ones that have held onto their jobs — are supposed to be back at work as the economy reopens. What is confusing to me is that these two plans are moving forward apace without any consideration of the working parents who will be ground up in the gears when they collide.
Let me say the quiet part loud: In the Covid-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job.
Part-time teachers, full-time parents
We were, until recently, a two-income family with savings, paying for more than the minimum of child care hours that we needed each day just to cover what-ifs, living in one of the most expensive cities on earth. We have laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi, and didn’t think twice before panic-ordering pencils, paper, markers and anything else we thought might help our children.
But my family, as a social and economic unit, cannot operate forever in the framework authorities envision for the fall. There are so many ways that the situation we’ve been thrust into, in which businesses are planning to reopen without any conversation about the repercussions on families with school-age children, is even more untenable for others.
Under the best of circumstances, the impact on children will still be significant. Students will lose most of a year of learning as parents — their new untrained teachers — cannot supervise in any meaningful way while Zooming into the office. At best, the kids will be crabby and stir-crazy as they don’t get enough physical activity because they’re now tethered to their parents’ work spaces all day, running around the living room in lieu of fresh air. Without social interactions with other children, they constantly seek parental attention in bad ways, further straining the mood at home. And these are ideal scenarios.
But what about kids who cannot learn remotely? What about kids who need services that are tied to schools? Or those who are at higher risk for complications if they get the virus and might not be able to go back even one week out of the three?
When learning plans for children with special needs could not be followed appropriately this year, academic gains for many students were quickly wiped out. Remote learning has already widened racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps because of disparities in access to technology tutors. As parents are crushed by the Covid economy, so are the children who need the most support. It’s no wonder the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement this weekend urging that students be physically present in school as much as possible this fall.
The long-term losses for professional adults will be incalculable, too, and will disproportionately affect mothers. Working mothers all over the country feel that they’re being pushed out of the labor force or into part-time jobs as their responsibilities at home have increased tenfold.
Even those who found a short-term solution because they had the luxury to hit the pause button on their projects and careers this spring to manage the effects of the pandemic — predicated on the assumption that the fall would bring a return to school and child care — may now have no choice but to leave the work force. A friend just applied for a job and tells me she cannot even imagine how she would be able to take it if her children aren’t truly back in school. There’s an idea that people can walk away from careers and just pick them up where they left off, even though we know that women who drop out of the work force to take care of children often have trouble getting back in.
And lest you think it’s everyone vs. teachers, I cannot imagine a group this situation is less fair to. Teachers are supposed to teach in the classroom full-time but simultaneously manage remote learning? Even in non-pandemic times, teachers would tell you that they already work unpaid overtime on nights and weekends, just planning and grading. Where, exactly, will the extra hours come from? For teachers with their own school-age children, the situation isn’t just untenable, it’s impossible.