It’s Not Just About Going Online

I started this blog post — about the conundrum of working from home without childcare — about three months ago now, and couldn’t bring myself to finish the post. There is no happy conclusion that works for capitalism, no solution that magically puts people before profit in a society that worries more about the health of the economy than that of the people living in it.

So what are we going to do? What if childcare isn’t widely available come fall?

What would it look like to put people and their health first?

In keeping with previous posts, I’m starting from my own experience. Before going further, I want to acknowledge the relative flexibility and privilege I have as a tenured college professor. And although my husband was furloughed from his job, his unemployment benefits made up for his lost wages, which made it possible for him to be our 5-year-old son’s nearly full-time teacher and parent while my 50- to 70-hour work weeks raged on. Had he continued to have to work, I don’t know how we would have managed.

My husband began going back to work one day per week in May, and so Tuesdays have become Mommy-teacher days. I spend all day with our son, teaching, playing, and getting to know this incredible kid I’ve barely gotten to spend time with these last five years. Since my life’s work is teaching teachers how to teach, I’m always interested in getting more practice in the classroom (and the ‘classroom’ right now is virtual), so I’ve been leading a virtual preK storytime on Tuesdays with my son and a few of his friends. Which, by the way, is really hard. I can’t imagine that this is “school” for him for the foreseeable future. And yet the alternative makes me increasingly uneasy.

This fall, our son is supposed to start kindergarten. We’re still waiting for the district to announce its plan, but rumor has it that kindergarten, if it happens in person, will include face masks, small groups, and alternating days. I was sort of okay with that possible plan until I heard the story about three teachers in Arizona who all contracted COVID while teaching summer school together — while wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. The fact that these educators were following all the precautions doesn’t bode well for the safety of opening K-12 schools come fall. Rest in peace and power, Kimberly Chavez Lopez Byrd.

Based on our dominant societal narrative, one goes to school to get ready for the job market. And one gets a job to make money. And one makes money to purchase the basic human needs of food, shelter, and safety. But what if instead of school being largely about getting a job and making money, it was about ensuring everyone’s health and safety?

If the safest way forward is having as many people shelter in place as much as they can until a vaccine for COVID-19 is created, manufactured, and distributed widely, then opening the schools doesn’t seem possible. And if we can acknowledge that reopening could be disastrous, then we need to rethink systems of mutual aid to include parents who work. And simultaneously, we need to reckon with the fact that it should have always been this way.

I’m not 100% sure what this would look like, but let me start with what my life will look like starting in August, when my husband will go back to work four days per week. Starting August 3, I’ll be the primary parent for our 5-year-old during the work week, which I haven’t been since he was 5 months old. And I’m excited! But I also have to work. I hold the health insurance for our family, and without a dual income, we can’t make our payments.

No matter how I slice it, it seems like a nightmare waiting to happen — a nightmare that many of my P-20 educator colleagues already had to manage from mid-March through the end of the spring 2020 semester.

While my son is able to do independent activities at times, he isn’t reading yet and isn’t old enough to be left alone for any stretch long enough for me to get in a full day’s work when his dad returns to work in August. And I’m not, as some parenting bloggers have suggested, going to plop him down in front of an iPad for hours on end. He spent the last year in OT working on sensory processing skills, and being on a screen for too many hours a day renders him a disregulated mess. I cannot do that to him in order to be at my work computer all day.

What if we didn’t reopen schools?

What if we had the freedom to develop local plans, wherein we created miniature homeschool coops with another family or a few — and it counted as paid work? What if we podded up with a small handful of other local families with 5-year-olds, and homeschooled a (very) small group of early childhood learners?

But when does parenting bleed into working in this scenario? At what point am I doing unpaid labor as an educator? And while we’re talking about it, why isn’t parenting paid labor in the first place?

Imagine with me for a minute.

What if my place of employment granted me a paid, partial leave to provide K-level instruction to a small group of local 5-year-olds in a combination of virtual and in-person instruction (as long as we followed strict safety guidelines) in lieu of the schools opening? As a dear friend and fellow educator-activist pointed out the other day, there’s a ton we can do outdoors, safely, until the weather turns too cold.

What if, in order to make legitimate space in my week for this scenario, I was only required to work 1 day per week at my normal job, since that’s realistically all I will have left over? How could the teacher candidates I teach also be part of the solution to localized childcare?

What if we gave people the necessary supports they need to remain whole and healthy through this difficult time, rather than put pressure on them to reopen schools when few people feel that it’s safe — and simultaneously feel that they have no choice, #becausemoney?

As an educator in public P-20 schools for twenty years, I know that schools provide necessary supports and benefits for families and children beyond the three Rs — the social-emotional elements and building of relationships with others in classrooms, for example, is incredibly important. And for some, the pain of isolation and being at home is unbearable. And the thought of not reopening is terrifying, But so is the idea of coming together in large groups inside buildings. We know that if we gather, it means that some kids and teachers and their family members will die. If so, then what in the world are we doing having this debate?

Instead, let’s put our energy into figuring out how to make childcare work locally, while giving parents who need it the most the necessary supports to parent full-time without a major loss of physical and mental health, full stop.

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 Supported by the CUNY Doctoral Students Council.