If “Most Students Should Stay Home,” What Do I Do with My Kids?
The Social Justice Dilemma of Pandemic Pod Schools for Privileged Parents
In “Some Students Should go to School, Most Should Stay Home: Socially Just Schooling in the Time of Covid-19,” I argued that we need to adopt both/and thinking in our planning for the coming school year. Instead of going fully online, or trying to provide all students with some face-to-face instruction, I propose that the more socially just answer would be to “make schools work for the students and families who are most on the margins, who are at greatest risk if school buildings remain closed, who cannot meet their basic needs without them. Give these students full days and full weeks so that their families have a reasonable chance of being able to support them. And the rest of us stay home.”
This argument addressed how schools should be planning for the coming school year in ways that are rooted in social justice and safety, but it left a pretty big question unanswered: What exactly are the rest of us (myself included) supposed to do with our children this fall?
The Social Justice Dilemma
Right now, many parents are answering this question by collectively creating “pandemic pods” — small groups of families who will commit to working together to care for and educate their children until we can safely return to the classroom. Some of these pods are basically childcare cooperatives in which parents rotate days they will be responsible for care, while others are closer to mini-private schools in which parents pool their resources to hire a teacher to educate their children in a home environment, and there are plenty of models in between.
Unsurprisingly, the conversation about pods seems to be especially prevalent in middle-class, majority white communities where schools have already committed to online learning. Also unsurprisingly, the conversation about pandemic pods has quickly raised concerns about equity and social justice. The problem for parents who value social justice (the idea that we should be actively working to dismantle systems that privilege some and oppress others) is that in a society segregated by race and class, in which even integrated schools are internally segregated by race and class, pandemic pods are virtually guaranteed to be segregated by race and class. Middle-class, predominantly white parents will be creating academically enriching experiences for their children out of school, while lower-income parents, who are disproportionately likely to be families of color, cannot in the same way. In trying to figure out a plan for managing their own lives, privileged parents will exacerbate the injustices already present in our education system and widen the inequities that have plagued our country since its founding.
The social justice problem of pandemic pods is obvious. What to do about it is not. While I can’t help you with the logistics of caring for your children during Covid-19, I do have some insight about how to make plans in ways that are more socially just.
First, a couple of reality checks for those of us with class privilege.
- Low-income parents have always been in this position.
Recently, when talking to my spouse about the schooling dilemma in our own home, he responded, “middle-class parents are, for the first time, experiencing the stress that low-income single parents have been living with, and we can’t handle it.” The dilemma we middle- and upper-middle class parents are facing is one that working-class parents have long dealt with. Schools have never been designed with them in mind. Who is caring for the children of people who have to work and cannot afford childcare for the entire summer? Holiday breaks? Spring break? After 3pm when the school day is over, but the workday is not? Wealthier parents have solved this problem by writing checks — to camps, aftercare, enrichment activities, nannies, daycares, etc. Low-income parents have never had this luxury. We should look to them as models of what we should do next and check our own privilege in how we talk about the unprecedented nature of what we are facing.
2. This is a crisis; we should act like it!
While the dilemma of childcare is not new, this is a unique time for our country and world, and we should act like it. One of the real challenges to Covid-19 is that there is a kind of collective denial permeating all areas of our society — just look at how difficult it still is to convince people to wear masks, even after 140,000 people have died. As has always been true, it’s hard to face a foe you cannot bring yourself to acknowledge. So, in case my first essay didn’t do the job, let me give you a dose of reality: “What we are currently dealing with is an absolute disaster of epic proportions with no good answers, no clear sides, and no room for either/or thinking.”
Think for a moment about a time in your life when you faced an epic crisis — an unexpected illness, a natural disaster, a war. In 2015, when I was 26 weeks pregnant, I did a presentation at an elementary school about how teachers can use multicultural books to talk to students about race and other social identities. Afterwards, I had a regularly scheduled prenatal appointment where I discovered I was 9cm dilated. I had a baby that day! My baby — who by the way, is now healthy, thriving, and whining for snacks as I write this — spent 3 months in the NICU.
That crisis meant I had to immediately shift almost everything about my life — cancel plans, find a place to live closer to the hospital, forget promoting my first book, and, most relevant here, stop working in the ways I had been. The societal-level crisis we are facing should be leading those of us who have privilege to consider: reducing our work schedules, going down to part-time, taking FMLA, using our vacation days, applying for food assistance, taking advantage of the leave we are now entitled to through the CARES Act, and calling our elected officials to demand a guaranteed basic income with job protections that will help ensure we have jobs to return to when it is reasonable to do so. We are now living in precisely the moment we created our (relatively limited) social safety nets for. We should use them.
This also means anyone who is an employer has a moral obligation to allow any employees who can work from home to do so, so they can care for their children, just as we would if an employee suddenly had a baby three months early. Moreover, it is everyone’s moral obligation not to unnecessarily expose those who have no choice but to work in person to potential carriers of Covid-19 who could be working from home.
How is this relevant to the discussion about “pandemic pods”?
If you are a relatively privileged person seeking a pandemic pod because you simply cannot imagine working less, the solution you seek might not be a pod, but a rethinking of the unrealistic expectations of “work” our current economic system is placing upon us. Raising critically thinking, social justice-minded children is also important work that the future of our country and our planet depend on, perhaps now more than ever. If schools can no longer contribute as much to this endeavor, families will have to do more, which will likely require doing other work less.
In families in which a woman and man are navigating this together, gender needs to be discussed as you do the deep work of maybe coming to terms, as I have, with the reality that your work may need to shift for the foreseeable future. You should be very intentional about making sure it is not only the woman who is doing the sacrificing, otherwise we’re just falling into another trap of injustice.
On a hopeful note, while almost everything we know about Covid-19 is deflating, our sacrifices will likely only be temporary as vaccines and therapies become available.
Now, some answers to your questions about social justice and pods.
1. Can I just homeschool next year?
If you do nothing else in your efforts to pod more justly, stay enrolled in public school. The biggest social justice risk we face as a result of this pandemic is the destruction of the public education system in the United States. This is the explicit and decades-long goal of Betsy DeVos, the current U.S. Secretary Education. If many of the most privileged parents officially opt out of public schools, they will be laying the foundation of destruction that will last long after this pandemic is over. Public schools in this country rely on enrollment. So, whatever you actually plan to do in your home, make sure your child’s name is on the list of kids opting into the online public school option and make sure they are being counted.
2. Can we hire a teacher for our pod?
There is a difference between “childcare” and “schooling.” All parents are in need of childcare — a safe place for their children to be during the day. However, finding childcare is very different than hiring a teacher to create a mini-private school for you and your (similarly raced and classed) friends. If significant numbers of already privileged parents hire private teachers to educate their children in their homes, there is no doubt they will be contributing significantly to huge disparities in opportunities for learning that disadvantage students and families already most disadvantaged and undermine the public school system (see above). The more just thing to do would be to find someone to watch your children if you need to, perhaps in a “pod” with other families, and then use the online education being offered by your child’s school to all students, not just the privileged few.
3. How do I justly compensate a person I hire for childcare or teaching?
Anyone you hire to provide childcare (or teaching if you still decide to do this) should be considered a household employee of which you are the employer. You should be paying them a living wage (minimally) and offering unemployment, paid sick leave, and other protections. If you are not sure how to do this, sites like care.com have some great resources for employing care-workers. Note: If you are asking someone to sign a liability waiver to work in your home (or the many homes of your pods), you’re doing it wrong. Hiring someone ethically is more expensive and complicated than paying them “under the table,” but doing so gives that caregiver (to whom you are entrusting your children) access to our social safety net so they can take care of their own families.
4. Are pods actually safer?
I am not a public health expert, but the answer seems to be that it depends. While many pods may be safer for families than schools (for those who will have the option of face-to-face schooling) it is also possible that the pod you are envisioning will be risky. Pods will not necessarily be smaller than the reduced class sizes some districts are proposing. The adults involved (parents of all the children, childcare providers, teachers etc.) will not necessarily be any less exposed to Covid-19 than the teachers at your school. There is no guarantee of better safety measures, and, not necessarily any system by which to monitor each other’s level of risk, which schools will be doing systematically. Creating a pod on your own isn’t in itself a safer option than sending your child to a school that is implementing safety standards and regularly testing.
5. Would it be more socially just to invite families with fewer resources to join our pod?
I have (more) bad news: we are not going to fix hundreds of years of race and class segregation through better pod strategizing. Pandemic pods rely on families feeling comfortable enough with each other to work together, send their children to each other’s homes, and trust the level of risk everyone is taking. Because of the way bias, relationships, segregation, and inequality work in our country, this likely means most people will really only do this with people they already have relationships with (through prior friendships, school connections, or neighborhoods), or feel connected to (because of race, class, and other identities).
I’m glad to see many white, middle-class parents online looking for ways to make their pods diverse, but my years as a social justice educator tell me that these are the real questions you will end up asking yourself:
· Am I willing to let my child spend the day at the home of a person I do not know well who is in a lower-class position than my family?
· Am I willing to have a child in my pod whose parents never take a turn doing childcare because they actually have to work outside of their home most days a week?
· Am I willing to let my child spend the day at the home of a person who is an essential worker being exposed to Covid-19 at much higher levels than me?
· Am I willing to let my child spend the day with someone who I never managed to build a friendship with despite our kids going to the same school for the past three years?
The fact is, pods are going to be just as segregated as everything else in our system and there’s likely no “invitation of others” that will fix this at any scale. If you are able to work out these considerations, great! There is nothing inherently wrong with doing this. But be clear, this entire conversation is largely an exercise in privileged people trying to feel better about their own complicity in generations of inequality and injustice. At the end of the day, it has little bearing on what most people are actually willing to do.
6. Is organizing a pandemic pod the most socially just use of my time?
If, after reading everything above, you’ve decided that you really want to do the thing that has the most benefit for the most marginalized students and families, then planning a pandemic pod is probably not the best use of your time. What should you do instead of (or at least in addition to) pod planning? Get angry at the level of injustice we are facing and get active!
Our time would be better spent collectively organizing and lobbying our school districts, and local, state, and federal governments for the kinds of supports that would benefit all families — like the immediate passage of guaranteed income for the duration of the pandemic, expanded paid leave, universal healthcare, protections for those who contract Covid-19, and accessible accurate testing for students and teachers who go to school in person.
There are many reasons we may not be able to live our values at this moment, starting with the children who have been crying non-stop in my house as I try to finish typing this. But, if we are committed to trying to achieve justice for all, I suggest that we should not be giving too much thought to organizing spreadsheets of privileged parents, we should be marching in the streets (with masks, proper distancing, and testing)! We should be demanding that those we have elected to lead and represent us do what the leaders of almost every other country on the planet have managed to: provide an actual social safety net that will benefit us all. Right now, the HEROES Act, which would be one step in this direction, is sitting in the Senate as Mitch McConnell refuses to do anything useful. So, start marching, or calling, or emailing, or tweeting, or Facebooking, or zooming, or figuring out who in your circles of privilege knows some senators.
In fact, let me help you begin. If you are working to organize for more socially just solutions at the systems-level put your info in the comments so the rest of us can join you!