Opinion: Stop Arguing About Schools Opening This Fall. Start Fighting for Paid Leave and Childcare

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It’s official: Students in San Diego and Los Angeles will be learning from home this fall. Kids in New York City’s public schools will only attend 1 to 3 days per week. More school districts are bound to announce similar plans, as the country reckons with a virus we can’t contain. Even those who have announced full school reopenings, such as Miami-Dade County Public Schools, will likely reverse that plan, as they become an epicenter of a deadly disease.

There was a time and a place to debate how to safely reopen schools, but that time was in March, and the place was on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which has only two women members out of more than two dozen. As soon as the scope of the pandemic became apparent—that it would kill many Americans and we would need to radically retrofit schools in a way that keeps students and teachers safe—the Department of Education should have been enlisting superintendents, principals, unions and teachers together to craft such a plan, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told The New York Times.

That never happened. It’s clear that our nation’s leaders were counting on minimizing the virus to a degree that schools could reopen safely without any modifications. We’ll leave the debates about the scope and efficacy of the efforts to contain COVID-19 to public health experts. What is increasingly clear is there should have been a plan for schools if the virus were never contained.

Now, here we are, with a fatal virus increasing in all but 13 states, and with the possibility that some public schools could remain shuttered for a year or more.

It is almost impossible to tally all the brutal societal costs of this outcome. Here are just a few: Remote learning, for many, was not effective, or even possible. Many students fell months behind. It is especially difficult for kids with disabilities. In some areas of the country, as many as two-thirds of students never logged on. A McKinsey & Company analysis estimates low-income students will fall more than a year behind their peers if in-person instruction is cancelled until fall 2021. Domestic violence is on the rise, and teachers serve a crucial role identifying physical and sexual abuse. For those moms and kids, closing schools is as much a matter of life and death as opening them. Nearly 14 million children went hungry in June, a grim trend that’s likely to continue for children who rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. Older children in over-policed communities could wind up in juvenile jails where kids have been forced into isolation and forbidden family visits. Globally, American students will fall even further behind their peers in other developed countries, which have reopened schools, because they have managed to control the virus.

Here at Working Mother, we are especially worried about how shuttered schools will impact working parents, particularly moms, and most particularly moms of color. Evidence suggests many moms will choose to leave the workforce, either temporarily or permanently, due to childcare concerns from the COVID-19 crisis. Many moms will be pushed out against their will, fired by employers, or shunted into lower-paying positions. They will lose out on promotions, raises and retirement savings. For many, their careers will never recover. Women’s labor force participation will slow down and the wage gap between men and women will stall, or even widen. This will have dire consequences for women’s advancement in the workforce and the economy at large.

Some parents have the privilege of working from home for employers who have provided the flexibility they need to simultaneously care for and teach their children. Most do not. Currently, less than 30 percent of workers can work from home, and only 16 percent of Hispanic workers and 20 percent of Black workers can telework. When schools close, their children will need, at the very least, supervision. Quitting their job is not an option. Nearly two-thirds of mothers are primary, sole or co-breadwinners for their families. A substantial 84 percent of Black mothers are primary, sole or co-breadwinners.

We are also deeply worried for our children’s teachers, many of them moms, and moms of color, as well. We have heard from teachers who work for school districts that have made very few adjustments to protect them, who are rightly terrified of teaching in a packed, poorly ventilated classroom. Yes, many Americans are back at work, but most job sites have made an effort to reinforce social distancing, if for no other reason than to keep their employees healthy and working. It’s impossible to social distance in a cramped classroom of 25 6-year-olds.

It is, frankly, too late to debate whether or not schools should reopen. In many schools, it can’t be done in a way that meets the safety guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control. The American Academy of Pediatrics “strongly advocates” for in-person schooling, but only with the blessing of local public health experts, especially in areas with high levels of community spread. That is now a depressingly unlikely scenario.

The conversation must pivot, and quickly, to address the needs of working parents who will be left with no good options when schools close. We’re happy to see that some elected officials, such as New York City Councilmember Brad Lander, are addressing the gaps left by school closures, but it will take a full effort by local, state and federal leaders to meet the demands of the moment.

First, we must expand paid leave and paid sick leave, so that more working parents can choose to stay home with their children. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided up to 10 weeks of paid family leave and two weeks of sick leave, at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay, up to $200 a day, to those who are unable to work due to childcare or school closures, for their own illness or to take care of a sick child. But the program contained too many carve-outs, and largely excluded those who work at companies with fewer than 50 employees or more than 500. For those who used the benefit in the spring, they might have exhausted it already. Congress must extend the benefit so that it applies to all workers, and offers more than 12 paltry weeks. If Congress is unwilling to do so, states with paid family leave programs in place, such as New York and California, should look into ways to utilize them for this purpose. At the very least, large companies who can afford it should offer paid leave to parent employees during the pandemic, just as Microsoft and Google have done.

Second, we must shore up the childcare industry, which is in danger of collapsing. Currently, Congress is discussing the HEROES Act, which would provide $7 billion in dedicated funding for childcare through the Child Care and Development Block Grant, but experts estimate we will need $9.6 billion a month to keep the sector alive. High-quality childcare will be needed more than ever if schools remain closed. Many childcare centers have reduced their enrollment by design, to maintain smaller, consistent classrooms, but that leaves them financially vulnerable. We should encourage their efforts to prioritize staff and child safety by giving these centers the funds they need to stay afloat. Some states have implemented groundbreaking programs to provide free or subsidized childcare for essential workers. Those programs could be expanded to offer the same for all parents who cannot work from home.

Third, we need job protections for working parents. Discrimination hotlines are ringing around the clock with calls from moms who say they’ve been retaliated against or fired for needing to care for their children while schools and daycares are closed. Lawmakers must require that employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees whose hours of availability are limited due to childcare needs, and working parents should be protected by law so that they are not retaliated or discriminated against for seeking those accommodations.

To be clear, these suggestions aren’t a panacea. Parents and daycare providers will never be able to replace qualified teachers. Some families will still fall through the cracks. And reliance on daycare providers puts those workers at risk. But if workplaces are open, workers will need childcare. You can blame the bars. Blame those who refused to wear a mask. Blame our elected officials. Blame the fact that women and working moms in the US largely aren’t in the room where it happens. You can simmer with rage that working families have been put in this untenable situation. (We do.) But, at the end of the day, we must do what moms do: Roll up our sleeves and save the world.



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