In ordinary times, K–12 schools offer valuable services to two distinct populations, and arguably get far more credit for serving one than the other. School famously provides kids with an education—as well as socialization and, in many cases, support (in the form of meals and medical and mental-health services, to name a few). At the same time, with decidedly less fanfare, it provides their parents with some eight hours of daily child care, five days a week, for most of the year, freeing up time for adults to earn the money it takes to raise kids for the remaining 16 or so hours of the day. For families, economies, and societies, schools have been reliable, helpful partners for generations.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into that system the way it threw a wrench into just about everything. When offices and schools closed in March so that workers and students could comply with social-distancing guidelines, things fell apart for working parents. Suddenly kids were trying to learn but struggling because they weren’t in real school; meanwhile, their parents were trying to work but struggling because their kids needed looking after.
Because the subtraction of school created this crisis for parents, it’s tempting to see adding school back into the equation as the solution. Indeed, a number of state governments, as well as President Donald Trump, have subscribed to this logic and have pushed to reopen schools as a way to ensure economic recovery. But given what we know now about how COVID-19 spreads, the return of schools as they were—indoor spaces filled with people from different households, talking to and breathing on one another five days a week—is a nightmarish prospect for many parents, teachers, and students alike. Even in non-pandemic times, “anytime you bring together large groups of children who may not have the best hygiene practices in one place, you’re going to see increased transmission of a variety of different diseases,” Virginia Pitzer, an epidemiology professor at the Yale School of Public Health, told me. Including a hyper-contagious illness with no cure or vaccine in the mix makes for a dangerous situation.
Still, fully reopening schools is sometimes discussed as though it’s the only way to get parents out of this quagmire. It’s not. Other potential solutions exist—but implementing them would require substantially more time, money, and imagination.
If ensuring that parents make ends meet were the only objective, a universal basic income or a continued stimulus would help keep families from falling into dire straits, both personally and financially. For example, the federal government could implement a program that would regularly issue stipends similar to the $1,200 checks that many Americans received this spring. “To have people live in [a] situation where they literally don’t know where their next dollar is coming from, it not only creates economic hardship; it creates psychological hardship,” Francine Blau, who teaches economics at Cornell University, told me. So for parents who have had to reduce their hours or quit their jobs entirely to care for their children, she said, a reliable form of continuous income could help tremendously. But although a universal basic income could help working parents avoid falling into financial ruin, it wouldn’t do much to improve the outlook for kids’ education, which would still be remote (and therefore less effective than in-person learning).
A more comprehensive solution could look something like a nationwide compassionate-leave policy. Usually, compassionate leave refers to paid time off to care for an ailing relative or to grieve for a relative who has recently died. But during the pandemic, the Vermont-based nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids, which advocates for quality early-childhood education, gave workers up to 12 weeks of compassionate leave to take as they wished, and also allowed those whose kids’ schools had closed to work on flexible schedules. Let’s Grow Kids’ CEO, Aly Richards, told me that because a number of those employees are taking just two hours of leave a day, their paid-leave time will stretch into the future. With that extra couple of hours in the day to care for or homeschool kids and the freedom to work some of their hours after the kids are asleep, parents are more productive in their work, Richards has found. Especially in homes with two parents, who can each take a short shift watching the kids, Richards noted, a few extra hours to focus on kids rather than work can go a long way.
Of course, Richards was quick to point out that none of this would have been possible without a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, designed to help small businesses keep paying their employees during the pandemic. “We applied for PPP funds so we can continue to pay employees full salaries when they just step back from work to provide child care,” she said, and “PPP absolutely was crucial on that.” If state or federal governments wanted to help parents get back to working and earning without having to reopen schools, they could enact compassionate-leave policies—but they would also need to offer financial assistance to businesses so they could afford to pay workers full-time wages for reduced work hours. A policy like this could help parents balance their jobs with the increased child-care demands of quarantine, and help businesses keep their employees, but “a company can’t do this indefinitely without some additional resources,” Blau said.
A compassionate-leave policy could also perhaps keep kids learning at home, where they’re more insulated from the risk of COVID-19 transmission than they might be at school. They would still be learning remotely, but their parents could be more hands-on and make up for some of what kids lose without in-person instruction.
The experts I spoke with all agreed that in-person learning is best: It offers kids a more robust social life, gives educators more control over the environments in which they teach, and gets kids out of the house so their parents can work. But as Pitzer noted, just about every part of a school day as we know it presents transmission risks. Classrooms in the U.S. can contain upwards of 30 students at a time, sometimes with poor ventilation; research done during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic showed that transmission was five times as likely among classmates than among kids in the same grade who weren’t in the same class. And the risk still exists for kids who aren’t classmates. On the morning and afternoon bus, for example, which can also be poorly ventilated, kids from different grades and classes mingle and sometimes ride two or even three to a seat. Kids tend to mingle during the lunch hour, too, as well as touch one another, touch their face and mouth, and swap food.
Every part of the school day, in other words, would now provide ample opportunity for kids to spread a novel and deadly virus to one another—and to their teachers—save for perhaps outdoor recess (and even that could present risks if kids were to, say, play a pickup game of basketball). So the best way to achieve in-person learning during a pandemic isn’t to reopen schools as they were, but to reimagine them.
If a government were to really commit to getting creative in order to meet the work needs of parents, and the safety, educational, and developmental needs of kids, it might look a lot like what Denmark began doing earlier this year. Danish schools opened in April, just a month or so after they had closed, and primary-school students went back first. (Younger kids, Richards pointed out, need the in-person instruction and socialization the most, and seem to be at a low risk of COVID-19 infection and perhaps even a low risk of transmission.) Students were organized into small pods of about 12 students, the idea being that they would stay with those pods all day, and classes were held outside whenever possible. In May, about 200 fourth and fifth graders in Copenhagen began attending classes in the stands of the national soccer stadium.
Pitzer said she thinks that this model—micro-schools having class in outdoor spaces, or buildings that aren’t otherwise in use, in order to socially distance properly—sounds great from a risk-reduction standpoint. But she also wonders whether it could ever get off the ground in the United States. “Any way that you can reduce classroom capacity and keep kids cohorted in small groups would be a good way to reduce the transmission risks,” she said. “I think it would [also] involve enormous resources, hiring a lot more teachers in a very short time period to accommodate those reduced student-teacher ratios, and getting the cooperation to identify and utilize additional spaces that may not currently be in use.”
This would be a huge lift, but Jodi Grant thinks it’s possible. As the executive director of Afterschool Alliance—a nonprofit that aims to increase the availability and quality of after-school programs—coming up with ways to provide safe, educational, nonschool spaces where kids can go so their parents can work is Grant’s job. Right now, “we’re banging our heads against the wall,” she told me. “So many school boards are just so focused right now on what they’re going to do [that] they’re not actually thinking creatively about what they can do.”
Schools are suddenly faced with the dilemma of needing much more space for in-person instruction. But, Grant pointed out, space-sharing partnerships with local libraries, churches, parks, museums, and businesses are what make a lot of after-school programs possible—so perhaps similar arrangements could be made for the school day itself. Plus, the United States is full of currently unused office buildings, and will have a surplus of relatively empty college campuses come autumn. “The infrastructure is already there,” she said.
If virtual schooling continues (or if schools open at partial capacity, meaning students would go to school in person only two or three days a week), after-school programs could provide some relief for parents; in some places, they already have. In Flint, Michigan, the after-school enrichment program YouthQuest partnered with teachers who were doing virtual summer school. Whenever class ended or teachers went on a break, the enrichment program would take over the stream, providing kids with more learning opportunities and parents with more uninterrupted time to work. In Eldon, Missouri, the Learning Enriched Afterschool Program has been coordinating with a half-day summer-school program so that kids can get an additional half day of after-school enrichment. “The demand was huge,” Grant said. If school districts were to open this fall at partial capacity, with students alternating their days of attendance, the infrastructure that sustains after-school programs could be similarly repurposed for full-day virtual, socially distanced, or outdoor “out-of-school” programs.
Of course, for after-school programs to scale up in this way, they would need some of the same kinds of help that schools need. “We desperately need more resources,” Grant said. “We need [protective gear], and we’re going to need more staff if we really want to have them follow public-health guidelines, which is essential.” Legislation has been proposed in the Senate to increase funding to the service program AmeriCorps. If that legislation were to pass, Grant suggested, young people—college students who are taking a hiatus because their campuses have gone virtual, for example—could be enlisted to help educate and care for kids during their out-of-school time.
Like all of these proposed ideas, though, this plan raises questions about how to meet educational standards or modify them, and about who would be eligible for participation in these programs. Policies like universal basic income, federally supported compassionate-leave policies, micro-schooling distributed throughout communities, and expanded after-school or out-of-school programming all present possible solutions to the problems working parents have faced during the coronavirus pandemic. They also, however, all would likely require substantial financial investment from governments, as well as huge amounts of human effort and creativity, to enact. Reopening schools, then, isn’t the only way to help parents get back to work. It’s just the easiest.