School’s starting soon. Why are parents and kids still in limbo?

Why We Wrote This

Despite broad agreement on the importance of in-person instruction, many say there’s been a lack of official planning and resources provided to help schools reopen safely, as the COVID-19 pandemic appears far from over.  

Randy Hoeft/The Yuma Sun/AP
Second graders at Palmcroft Elementary School are seen on the computer screen during an online instructional session in Yuma, Arizona, March 20, 2020. With the start of the 2020-21 school year just weeks away, some large urban districts have already announced that the fall semester will be in part or entirely online again.

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As governments allow restaurants, malls, and even gyms to reopen with strict new guidelines, schools are seeming a policy afterthought to many. In the United States, President Donald Trump is pressuring governors to reopen schools in person come fall. Yet with COVID-19 cases climbing across many states, and several large urban school systems already announcing plans for online-only or hybrid instruction, a full return to school appears unlikely to occur for many students. 

But the problem remains: The economy can’t grow without children in safe, full-time care. Competing priorities, a streak of individualism, and perhaps most crucially, stretched resources – not to mention the uncertain science around COVID-19 and the anxieties parents feel about sending their kids back into group settings – have conspired to leave families and their employers in prolonged limbo. Yet, if carefully planned, school reopening could be done in many places, experts suggest.

“We have a policy solution for entertainment and personal services and restaurants. We can continue to do unemployment support and loans for small businesses,” says Sarah Cohodes, associate professor of economics and education at Columbia University. “Currently, we don’t have any policies or solutions for kids other than to say to families, ‘Tough luck, figure it out.’”

Karla Hayward, a working parent in Newfoundland, finally got back to her office in July, while her daughter has come home from camp each afternoon, as Mom puts it, “sweaty and starving, just as I want her to be.”

Yet when she looks ahead to the fall, she has no idea if she’ll still be at the job in marketing that she loves, because her 5-year-old might be stuck at home again. Although her employer has figured out how to get staff back to work, and her kid’s summer camp is operating, there is no concrete plan – or even a best guess in many places – for how to get millions of school-aged children in North America safely back to class.

Instead, she feels that authorities have left families – and particularly women – to simply “figure it out.”

“There is a pervasive thought that women know how to deal with the children, women will figure it out,” she says. “But coping with something for a few months is very different than coping with something looking out over a year. I literally don’t know how I do it on top of working full time.”

As governments allow restaurants, malls, and even gyms to reopen with strict new guidelines, the 2020-21 academic year is seeming to many a policy afterthought, something for local school districts or families to solve. 

In the United States, the debate has surged in recent days as President Donald Trump has pressured governors to reopen schools in person come fall. Yet with COVID-19 cases climbing across many states, and several large urban school systems already announcing plans for online-only or hybrid instruction, a full return to school appears unlikely to occur for many students. 

But the problem remains: The economy can’t grow without kids in safe, full-time care. In the U.S., parents with minor children make up nearly one-third of the workforce, and as of 2017, 41% of children relied on their mother as the sole or primary breadwinner for their family.

Competing priorities, a streak of individualism, and perhaps most crucially, stretched resources – not to mention the uncertain science around COVID-19 and the anxieties parents feel about sending their kids back into group settings – have conspired to leave families and their employers in prolonged limbo. Yet, if carefully planned, school reopening could be done in many places, experts suggest.

“We have a policy solution for entertainment and personal services and restaurants. We can continue to do unemployment support and loans for small businesses,” says Sarah Cohodes, associate professor of economics and education at Columbia University. “Currently, we don’t have any policies or solutions for kids other than to say to families, ‘Tough luck, figure it out.’”

Competing priorities

Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, says schools have fallen down the priority list, despite their key role in the economy as default child care. Schools do not generate tax revenues and cost state governments money. And public school teachers and administrators continue to earn their full salaries during remote learning. “There wasn’t the natural advocacy base to open schools,” she says. 

Dr. Cohodes also believes individualism, particularly deep in American society, plays a role in why schools have not taken center stage in the economic discussion. “The business itself can decide whether or not to reopen. You can decide whether or not you feel comfortable patronizing a store or going to get your hair cut,” she says. “We’re a very individualist society, but that also puts the responsibility and onus on the individual, and schools are a collective responsibility.”

It also makes it hard to plan reopening as a community, recognizing that bars might need to close now if schools are to open later, says Elizabeth Powers, associate professor in the economics department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They’re all bad choices. We don’t want people not to work at bars and restaurants, but I think there has to be a conversation. We can’t just open everything across the board.” 

Juliette Kayyem is a former assistant secretary for homeland security under former President Barack Obama. School is not considered “essential infrastructure” the way communications or transportation are, those systems that “separate us from chaos,” she says.

This was made clear when schools were shut down to “flatten the curve,” with no plan in place to reopen, while states like Arizona or Florida reopened bars and restaurants early despite public health warnings. “I think we just did not conceptualize the role of schools in making our society function in the same way that we would if a hurricane brought down an electrical grid,” says Ms. Kayyem, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Upon closing all the schools, which seemed like the right approach in March, somehow we waited until July to sort of figure this out.”

Frustration has grown over social media, with #schoolsbeforebars trending. In some ways it’s become more intense in Canada, since the numbers of confirmed cases and hospitalizations have continued on a downward decline, and the academic year has not become a political wedge issue. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto have argued for as normal a return to class as possible – given the emerging science around risks associated with children and as school openings elsewhere haven’t seeded the same kind of outbreaks as concerts or conferences.

When Ottawa-based policy analyst Lauren Dobson-Hughes wrote a column in Canada’s The Globe and Mail early this month, the conversation lit up north of the border. “Education is a human right. But you would not know this in most of Canada,” she wrote. “With restaurants, bars, golf clubs, and gyms reopening, it is increasingly obvious that we have our priorities utterly backward. Education and child care must be our biggest priority, not a mere afterthought delegated to school boards and schools.”

“I think every mother I know went, ‘Yes. Plus a thousand,’” says Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto-based consultancy. Mr. Usher knows there are unions, regulations, access, transport, and a host of other barriers to consider for safe reopenings – but that’s why provinces should be mobilizing now with every bit of creativity they can, he argues. His own work is concentrated in higher education, so he is well aware of how space in those institutions will be available next term.

“In Toronto, we’ve got a massive convention center sitting empty. Why not use community centers? Why not use churches?” he says. “None of these are perfect solutions, but they are options beyond what the government seems to be considering.”

Six weeks away from September, Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce has revealed nothing more than that school boards should plan on three scenarios: online classes; full-time, in-class instruction; or a hybrid model. Teachers inside the province’s largest school board in Toronto say they’ve not been given any guidance for the upcoming year. Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Monday that many parts of Ontario will be moving to Stage 3 this week, allowing for bars and inside dining to resume, and angering parents who say that cases should be kept as low as possible to ensure a safe return to school.

A need for patience

John Bailey, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and co-author of “A blueprint for back to school,” says some patience is due. “I think opening a bar or restaurant is much simpler than opening a complex operation like a school,” he says. The plans must reflect the fast-changing nature of the pandemic, which favors a wait-and-see approach, and address concerns of teachers and school staff fearful for their health.

Politics has only complicated the path forward. “We just saw the tweets from Trump and [Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos saying reopen schools fully in the fall. To me, that is politicizing something that shouldn’t be politicized – but I do think that outside of those politicized takes there’s this wishful thinking that we can return to normal in the fall,” says Dr. Cohodes. “We lost our window for that, if it ever existed. When we think about different options moving forward, I think what we have to remember is that we’re not comparing it to the school we knew, but a very changed experience.” 

Plus, those who need school to open the most might be the least inclined to send their children back. Much attention has been paid to inequalities faced by minorities during the pandemic, from being overrepresented in frontline work, victim tallies, and among children in poor education outcomes. Yet Carycruz Bueno, a postdoctoral research associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, says minority students might find a school setting too risky. For example, Black and Latino families are more likely to have intergenerational households with grandparents living under the same roof, she says, so those families will need to make collective decisions about whether a child returning to school in person is good for the health of the home.

Despite the complexities around reopening, many parents say it’s also impossible to ignore the gender aspect. The economic toll on women has been huge. In the U.S., social norms and gender pay gaps mean that most likely it will be mothers who leave the workforce, says Dr. Powers. A study in Canada showed the pandemic exacerbating the gender employment gap, particularly among those with elementary-age children.

Colorado mom Amy Webb has 7- and 11-year-old sons and is also the founder of the Thoughtful Parent blog. She is grateful for the flexibility she has to work from home, unlike many parents. But it means readjusting her expectations as the only realistic way to juggle it all. “I’m planning the lowest threshold of work I can do,” she says. 

Society is too accepting of this, says Ms. Hayward, the Newfoundland mom, exposing the fragility of women’s full equality when it comes to labor. “When it comes down to brass tacks, that sort of support tends to fall away fairly quickly,” she says.

The stigmas surrounding working mothers have also exacerbated the impossible choices women face now and kept some women from advocating for better solutions.

“As a mother, if I speak out and say, ‘You know, I need my child to go back to school in September,’ there’s a worry for me that someone is going to say, ‘You’re willing to put your child at risk for your career,’” Ms. Hayward says. “And a lot of us have health worries, and we’re tired and we’re busy and we don’t have a voice left. We’ve really become so exhausted by all of this that the thought of advocating for one more thing has felt impossible.”

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