How Can Anyone Talk About “Opening Up America” When the Schools Are Still Closed?

A sign urging students to use distance learning outside of closed Proviso West High School on April 18.
School is closed until further notice in Hillside, Illinois, and in much of the country. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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The president’s three-phased scheme for “Opening Up America Again” has raised plenty of concerns. What if we lift the lockdown too soon, and undo all of our curve-flattening? Can we really reopen when we don’t have a sound testing system in place? Might opening up now only extend the life of the virus and put the economy in more peril? But there’s one less discussed problem with the plan that deserves more attention: Most parents—who make up 41 percent of workers between ages 20 and 54—can’t go back to work until their kids have somewhere to go.

The first “phase” of Trump’s plan allows for the reopening of restaurants, gyms, churches, and movie theaters, while stipulating that “schools and organized youth activities” like day care and camp “that are currently closed should remain closed.” And sure enough, several states, including Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi, plan to start reopening some businesses in the next couple of weeks, even as their schools are closed until the fall.

At this point, any “reopening” will mean that employees whose workplaces have been closed since mid-March will now join workers previously designated “essential” in their dilemma: go to work and take the health risk of being out and about during a pandemic, or quit and lose a salary during a pandemic. But parents whose kids still don’t have a school or day care to go to when their jobs start back up will have problems to pile on top of these problems. Who, exactly, will watch the children, while they’re out “reopening”?

Grandparents, who are most vulnerable to the virus, are not the ideal backup care right now. Bringing a babysitter into your home is an exposure risk and can be a big expense. Group care for smaller children, which is better regulated, is hard to secure in the easiest of times, and is getting even more difficult to find. That’s because many child care centers and smaller home day cares around the country, even ones located in states where they haven’t been required by the government to shut their doors, have closed for health reasons—and, increasingly, for financial ones. As Vox’s Anna North reported earlier this month, many center-based and home-based group child cares that initially chose to stay open in March have lost an existentially threatening portion of their business, as parents who’ve lost their jobs and those who are working from home and are afraid of exposure have pulled their kids out. (Put this little worry in the back of your mind: We may exit the pandemic only to find that our child care crisis has gotten worse! It seems impossible, but the National Association for the Education of Young Children says it’s true.)

The government has put some backstops in place. Some full-time and part-time workers whose employers reopen can take advantage of the Family First Coronavirus Response Act’s provisions for leave, which give parents whose children have nowhere to go some paid time off. But there are catches: To be eligible, a parent (or caregiver) must have been employed for 30 days before the leave starts; the act covers only two-thirds of a worker’s salary, leaving it up to the employer to decide whether to complete the paycheck; small businesses employing fewer than 50 people may be exempt from providing child care leave, “if the leave requirements would jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern,” as the Department of Labor’s guidance puts it. That’s a lot of holes to fall through.

“The economy will not really ‘open up,’ and life will not really return to normal, as long as parents don’t have any place to send our children during the day,” Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times on Wednesday. But our country has long engaged in magical thinking around child care. Witness the longtime shortage of good and affordable day care options, or the way the structures of the school day and the academic year leave households with parents who work full time scrambling for after-school and summertime care, year after year.

We’ve all gotten great at plastering the gaps between an idealized model of family life and the actuality of work in this country. But now the cracks are really showing. As with every other maddening American defect the coronavirus crisis has highlighted, from our vulnerable supply chain to the screwed-up incentives of for-profit hospitals, it’d be great if the intensification of this ridiculous situation would teach us all a lesson. But the lack of consideration for families about to be caught up in this “first phase” of reopening doesn’t give me much occasion for hope.