The parents are not all right. “I know everyone knows this, but it is not actually possible to work while there’s no school or childcare,” Slate contributor Rumaan Alam wrote in a tweet on June 11. “I wish someone would say the quiet part loud: In the COVID economy, you’re only allowed a kid OR a job,” Deb Perelman wrote on Wednesday, in a thread about parents contemplating an autumn of mostly closed schools. Many Twitter users who replied with their own cris de coeur pointed out that their crushing feeling of having no space in the house and no time in the day came accompanied by a sinking sense that the kids are not OK, either—they’re sick of being home, missing their friends, losing crucial learning time, and struggling without the structure and services that schools provide. “Just give them an iPad” is fine for a month, or even two, but half a year—a whole year? No.
It’s for all these reasons that school “reopeners” in the public health community think that we should get school doors open—no matter what. But even the most stressed and eager parents feel a sense of doom about that, too. It is inarguable, isn’t it, that kids are dirty and social and incapable of staying apart? And slim school budgets won’t allow for adequate cleaning? And older teachers and members of students’ households will be at risk? All this is true, parents mutter, but it’s also impossible to keep on doing what we’re doing. We can’t go on; we must go on.
Here’s a way of thinking about school reopening that gave me, if not hope, then a creeping feeling of clarity. “ ‘How do we reopen schools?’ is not the right question,” Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said in a Twitter thread on Wednesday that reframed the question completely. “We need to look at *all* the things we want to reopen and face the fact that if we truly want to prioritize schools opening and staying open, some other parts of our society might just have to wait.”
Jenkins has two children in elementary school. She said over the phone on Thursday that she hadn’t thought about the issue this way until recently, when she was chatting with her husband, also a specialist in infectious disease, about how comfortable they’d be sending their kids back to the classroom. “Transmission in our area is really low right now, and if schools opened Monday, we’d send our kids in a heartbeat,” she said. “But of course, schools won’t open until fall, and we suddenly realized that what we cared about was less the nature of precautions schools might take, and more the level of community transmission. We realized we’d been looking at it the wrong way around. The school is not a bubble.”
In trying to understand the idea, it helped me to think of an ideal world in which communities looked at viral risk like household budgeters considering plans for monthly spending. I first heard about this idea of an “exposure budget” in a Tara Parker-Pope column in the New York Times earlier this month, and in my own life, I’ve begun to think about risk this way—deciding not to go back to my gym, for example, so that I could more conscionably hang out with friends (occasionally! Outside! Safely distanced, of course). If you think of a town, or a state, as having only a certain amount of risk to “spend” in trying to keep transmission down, you can imagine that by opening certain activities up, you are “spending” that risk.
Now imagine that in this ideal world, the needs of children and their working parents were primary in the minds of planners and politicians. In this Perfect Town, Perfect State, USA, the perfect leaders might say, “We are going to keep the schools open until we absolutely cannot anymore. (Or, if schools are closed for summer, we’re going to aim to have transmission rates at a place where we can open them in fall.) In order to accomplish that, we are going to do everything else we can to keep transmission low.” That approach would mean that disinfecting, mask-wearing, and other measures that rely on individual action, along with school resources, would not be a school’s first defense against transmission. If a school is open in a community that has kept other things closed, the virus would simply be less likely to be present at that school. The perfect execution of these sanitation and distancing plans, which seems so unlikely when you think about the nature of children, would be less crucial to success.
Of course, this isn’t the way it’s been framed to us thus far. “If somebody said to me, ‘Do you want to be able to go and dine in at your favorite restaurant, over the next year, at some point, or do you want to have a guarantee that your kids are going to get to go to school every day?,’ it would be an easy decision to make,” Jenkins said. “I think the politicians are trying to have everything. They are trying to make everyone happy, but I suspect we’re not going to be able to have everything.”
It may be functionally useless to contemplate this alternative scenario, because the government would have to backstop the economy in order to make this happen (those restaurant workers still need an income). And as we know, we don’t currently have a government in America that wants to do that. But it helps me, at least, to realize that our predicament, which seems “natural,” is a result of choices—made, and not made. As I wrote in my own rant about the closed-schools/open-jobs problem in late April, if American policymakers think it’s OK to put parents in this position, it may be because they’ve long been accustomed to papering over shortfalls in policy with huge sacrifices of parents’ and children’s well-being. High costs and unavailability of day care, gaps in summer and after-school coverage—if that’s hard for you, our pre-2020 system said to parents, perhaps you should contemplate simply having enough money to live on one income? (Of course, you’re raising kids in a two-parent household. That goes without saying.)
The work of American parents, who will put up with a lot to have children, has kept this system afloat. And there is a lot of free-floating ideology out there to make us think that our stress is our problem, not the country’s. Those people show up even now, in smug replies to tweets like Perelman’s and Alam’s, to remind us that “parenthood is sacrifice.” But Jenkins’ risk-spending reframing reminds us—it doesn’t have to be. At least, not this much.