Keep Schools Closed and Pay Parents to Be Full-Time Caregivers

The government could ease this fall’s child care crisis and fight COVID with one simple trick.

A girl and her mother sit a table and look at a laptop screen.
Manuel Tauber-Romieri/iStock/Getty Images Plus

As parents plot increasingly byzantine care arrangements for children whose schools and day cares decide to stay closed this fall—pod? Home school? Part school, part pod? Leverage a neighborhood teenager?—their stress mounts over the prospect of having to mix work, child care, and education. A lot of their problems would be solved if the government would financially enable more parents to be their kids’ caregivers and teachers, just for the duration. Imagine: a dedicated educator for every kid—if not someone who’s professionally trained, at least someone who’s not extremely stressed by trying to work and teach simultaneously. Plus, effective suppression of coronavirus transmission, without all that podding and traveling.

There are problems—in-person education would be much better for kids, academically and socially; so far in this pandemic, it’s tended to be mothers who step back from the workforce, harming their future prospects. Still, this seems like at least as much of a win as you can find in August 2020, and it’s the kind of choice that many more privileged parents are making already. But those who can afford it aren’t the only ones leaning this way: Over the summer, a series of polls have found that nonwhite and low-income parents are more likely than white and higher-income counterparts to be considering keeping kids home from school and to already be scaling back their work hours to take care of those kids. As things stand, lower-income households will pay quite a price for that safety-minded choice.

Is there a way for the government to underwrite more parents’ choices to concentrate on caregiving this fall? Advocates for children and families see a few ways to do it.

The paid leave portions of the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, passed in March, were meant to provide time for people who have COVID-19 to quarantine as well as 10 paid weeks (and an additional two unpaid weeks) to take care of a child whose school or day care is closed. This was a dramatic expansion of existing paid leave provisions, but it was still full of holes. According to calculations from the Center for American Progress’ Sarah Jane Glynn, if every business eligible for exemption from the law were to take it, only 17 percent of private sector workers would get the kind of coverage it offers. One huge loophole was the exclusion of companies with more than 500 workers from the rule. (Immediately, workers at places like McDonald’s, Kroger, and Amazon were no longer eligible.) There’s also a stipulation that companies with under 50 employees could be exempt from providing leave for parents with kids out of school if they thought that their businesses would be harmed. Poor and low-income workers are more likely to be employed by the kinds of small businesses covered under that exemption.

But even if you were covered by the FFCRA, its benefits end on Dec. 31 of this year, are limited to 12 weeks, and are paid at two-thirds of the regular rate of pay, making the option less than ideal. “In March, we didn’t know very much,” Vicki Shabo, an expert on paid leave policy at New America’s Better Life Lab, said. “We didn’t know how long this pandemic was going to last. We didn’t know what the effects of the disease itself were going to be, that there would be long-haul cases or ongoing health effects. Congress didn’t think a lot about a family maybe having sequential cases of COVID—one person gets sick, then another one,” so somebody needs to take off time for sickness, and then more for caregiving. And, of course, in March, we didn’t know that many school districts would be making the decisions they’re having to make now. The HEROES Act, passed by House Democrats in May and stymied by the Senate, included $32 billion to extend and expand the paid leave credit for businesses, to fix some of these loopholes; by contrast, the HEALS Act, put forth by Senate Republicans last week, contains nothing for paid leave.

But paid leave is only one possible provision that could help parents face an autumn (or a year? Don’t say it!) without child care or school. According to Michelle Dallafior, of the advocacy group First Focus on Children, the nature of the crisis—rolling, uncertain—means that more than one provision may be necessary. “Families are finding themselves in different situations at different times in this crisis,” she said. “And it looks like it’s going to continue for a long time.” Even some people who were able to take paid leave under FFCRA, she pointed out, may already have used up their 12 weeks, since schools have been closed since March and many summer care arrangements were canceled.

An additional measure, Dallafior added, should be for the government to provide cash assistance for families where parents don’t have jobs to take leave from. Enhanced unemployment insurance payments, of course, have been part of that picture; as of Friday, negotiations between congressional Democrats and the White House on extending those benefits stand, once again, at an impasse. Dallafior and her organization think that another way to get more money into the hands of people who have kids at home, and to take the pressure off this fall, would be to expand coverage of the child tax credit so that it covers the many low-income families who currently don’t qualify due to lack of earnings, and then to convert that credit into a monthly allowance for families with kids. This wouldn’t be a giant amount of money, but Dallafior emphasized that the regularity of those payments “would give some sense of security for families to make decisions”—to spend the monthly money on child care, or rent, or whatever else would keep their household on an even keel. That measure to expand the tax credit is in the HEROES Act but not in the HEALS Act. And the proposed Pandemic TANF Assistance Act, which would help needy families get emergency money for housing and food, wasn’t included in the HEALS Act either.

Of course, as my colleague Jordan Weissmann recently wrote, everything in the HEALS Act is calculated to push people out into the public sphere. This is grotesque, in the middle of a pandemic, but it’s only logical, given our recent political history around the idea of welfare. In a recent Twitter thread, Jen Roesch, an activist, writer, teacher in training, and parent of a child in middle school in New York City, argued that part of the reason why paying parents to help them stay home with kids has been absent from the discussion over school closures is “the ideological legacy of the war on welfare.” “I’m not saying that we should have to stay home with kids,” Roesch said in an interview, “but we should also recognize that there are a lot of women, especially women of color, who might want to be able to take care of their own children right now, and all of our policies are being engineered to send them out to take care of ‘essential labor,’ at the expense of their own families.”

The idea that even poor parents might be paid something to full-time parent, if they want to do it, is painfully far from present in our politics. When this preexisting paradigm meets the conditions of COVID, the results are more stress, sickness, and pain. “This [situation] is being placed on top of the American context, and the assumption that poor people cannot be trusted to make decisions that are right for their families and, frankly, good for society,” Myra Jones-Taylor, of the early-childhood advocacy organization Zero to Three, said in an interview, “so government has to step in and compel them to do the right thing.” From the perspective of the Republicans in control, “the right thing,” at least for people who can’t afford to assign one parent to take charge of schooling and supervision, involves work for parents and school or day care for kids. COVID makes doing that supposed “right thing,” and still staying safe, impossible.

Is there any hope that negotiations in Congress in coming weeks might result in movement on paid leave or other help for parents? Vicki Shabo pointed out that support for paid sick and family leave has long been robust in the United States and that polls around questions of paid leave to help people to get through the pandemic reflect similar levels of support. She pointed me to June polling that showed that most respondents favored the idea of expanding the coverage available through the FFCRA to cover the classes of employees left out by the original act as well as to cover people who need to take caregiving leave when an adult family member or loved one needs it. Another poll taken in June showed that 80 percent of American respondents supported the idea of expanding leave to workers for businesses with more than 500 employees. If legislators are responsive to public opinion, we may see a shift before the relief package is finalized. But that’s a big if.

For her part, Jones-Taylor found some hope in the increasing universality of parents’ current predicament, pointing out that now, the “pathologizing” of poverty was coming to apply to more and more people—“more people are in need of SNAP, in need of WIC.” “I think,” she said, “there is going to be a reckoning—a recognition that these narratives have been wrong forever, and are tired, and need to be upended.”

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