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We Can’t Let Parents and Teachers Be Pitted Against Each Other In Debate Over School Reopenings

We have been presented with unacceptable choices by a society that doesn’t value children or working families

Jen Roesch
Jul 6 · 11 min read
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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Plans for “reopening the economy” are plowing ahead even as new cases of the coronavirus — and our national death toll — continue their steady climb upwards. More bars, restaurants, bookstores, hair salons and all kinds of undeniably non-essential businesses are opening each day. But the discussion of if and how to open in-person schools this fall remains one of the most fraught.

Working — and non-working — parents who have been home alone with their children for months, or struggled to patch together informal childcare arrangements, are becoming increasingly desperate. As the food writer Deb Perelman pointed out in a NY Times piece, this isn’t just about the emotional challenges of being home with the kids — real though those are. Instead, as she notes: “We are not burned out because life is hard this year. We are burned out because we are being rolled over by the wheels of an economy that has bafflingly declared working parents inessential.”

The economic toll of the pandemic is immense and it has fallen most heavily on women and Black and Latinx people, many of whom are parents. A new employment report shows that nearly half of all adults in the US are now unemployed. Many of these people don’t even show up in the unemployment figures as they have stopped looking for work — many due to lack of childcare or needing to care for elderly family members.

At the same time, enhanced unemployment benefits are set to expire at the end of July and grace periods for mortgages, rent and credit card debt are about to run out. And as more businesses open, many workers are being pressured to return to work. If they are elderly or have underlying health conditions — or live with people in this situation — they face being forced out of the workforce without any economic protections.

Parents who are unable to secure childcare also risk being forced out of work. In a society in which 41% of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, this is an economic and social disaster. This is not just a question of professional identity or gender equality — no matter how important these are. For millions of families, it is a question of survival.

This pressing economic and social backdrop makes the discussion of opening schools high-stakes and anxiety-ridden. It doesn’t help that the experts who are supposed to inform these discussions are offering conflicting recommendations. Meanwhile, school district leaderships are failing to provide concrete information and don’t seem to have a plan. And local budget cuts to schools make promises of safety precautions like smaller class sizes or support for traumatized children seem like pie-in-the-sky fantasies.


Unfortunately, this has set the stage for teachers and parents to be pitted against each other. Teachers are justifiably worried about being sent back to work in schools while the virus is still spreading and without any clear plans for maintaining their health and safety. In NYC, the initial epicenter of the epidemic, the city’s disregard for the lives of school staff is an open wound.

The city refused to close schools for nearly two weeks as parents and teachers begged for them to close — and when they finally did, teachers were ordered back to work for in-person curriculum planning for almost a full week. Close to 100 school-based staff ended up dying and some experts say that deaths could have been reduced by 50–80% if school closures and other social distancing measures had been taken just a week earlier.

At the same time, many workers who have had to work as essential workers or are now being asked to return to work — many of whom lack union protections and are in precarious positions — resent that they are being asked to risk their own health and safety.

As I wrote in an earlier piece about the pandemic, forcing us into unacceptable choices is the logic of our government’s response to the pandemic.

“This is the end game of their war of attrition. It feeds on our own sense of exhaustion and confusion. The fact that the status quo feels intolerable makes any change to it seem welcome — or at least inevitable…It was never about lives vs the economy. It was always about their profits vs our lives.

In order to fight for our lives to be prioritized over profits, parents and teachers need to recognize that we are being put in impossible positions by those with all of the money, resources and power. Our specific needs and individual breaking points may be different, but we are all in this together.


This means we need to start to put forward a common understanding and vision. Here are some suggestions for starting points for that discussion:

#1 — The risks of opening schools go far beyond those who work in them- and are much higher for communities of color

Many teachers were angered that the American Academy of Pediatricians’ (AAP) recently released guidelines on school openings focused on the risks to children without sufficiently addressing the health risks of adults who work in schools. On the other side, many school opening advocates have criticized teachers for placing their own health over that of the needs of children and families.

While no worker should ever be shamed for fighting to protect the health and safety of themselves or their families, the risk to school workers is only one of the risks involved in opening schools. Reopening schools threatens to accelerate existing outbreaks and reignite them in places that had started to bring the virus under control.

As I wrote in a discussion of the AAP guidelines:

“Reopening schools exponentially increases the number of interactions that potentially infected adults have with others. Each of those adults then returns home to households, many of them with vulnerable or elderly members, or travels on to workplaces where they interact with still more adults. It is easy to see how opening schools, particularly in the context of a reopening economy, could open up and multiply new chains of transmission.”

This is true even if the AAP is correct in its assertion that the risk of children becoming sick or transmitting the virus is low. Unfortunately, this too is an overly-confident projection based on preliminary findings in the study of a vaccine in which the science is still evolving. Many supporters of opening schools had claimed that we had not seen cases emerge in daycare centers that had remained open throughout the pandemic.

However, in the last two weeks in Texas — a current hotspot — the number of cases in childcare centers jumped to 643 caregivers and 307 children. This was more than a four-fold increase. In Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, an infectious disease specialist reported 238 positive cases in children, with more than half of them over the last 10 days. 90% of these cases were symptomatic and 6 of the children were hospitalized.

Our knowledge about how the virus is transmitted is still evolving. Projections about the low risk to and from children have not been tested in the context of sustained exposure to the high viral loads that would result from open schools.

These risks are highest for Black and Latinx people

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From NYT article: The Fullest Look Yet at the
Racial Inequity of Coronavirus

One thing we do know conclusively is that Black and Latinx people have been infected and died in far greater numbers. A new, comprehensive report in the NY Times shows that these disparities are even worse and more widespread than we had known. It should ring alarm bells for anyone considering reopening schools this fall.

According to the report, these disparities are not just a reflection of the virus hitting urban areas with large concentrations of people of color hardest. Instead, they exist across urban, rural and suburban areas.

In terms of the debate over reopening schools, the age-related data on racial disparities are particularly concerning. Assurances about the relatively low risks of transmission and serious illness for young people are based on overall averages that do not account for the higher risk to young people of color. Only 6% of white people who have died from the virus were under 60, but more than 25% of Latinx people were.

There has been a lot of talk about equity and racial gaps in academic performance as a key reason to open schools. But this data means that we also have to see the risks of reopening schools as a racial justice issue — especially in large urban school districts where the vast majority of students are low-income and Black and Brown students.

The health and safety needs of teachers and the families and communities they serve cannot be separated.

#2 — A safe and just reopening of schools should be a top policy priority — but it isn’t yet

Officials have argued that it is a priority to reopen schools, but they have failed to provide the resources or make the difficult choices this would require. Reopening schools safely requires measures both within and outside of schools.

Within schools, we need dramatically smaller class sizes, additional teachers, counselors and nurses to meet the intensified needs of students and implement health measures effectively, and an adjustment to academic expectations in order to focus on emotional and social health. We need an abundance of cleaning supplies and staff.

Outside of schools, we need robust testing and tracing capabilities and aggressive and consistent public health policies to contain the virus. This would mean prioritizing the opening of schools over that of non-essential — but profit-generating — businesses. Mask wearing and other public health measures would need to be universally encouraged and systematically enforced in spaces like grocery stores, pharmacies and other indoor businesses. And all workers would need to be guaranteed sick leave and job protections and told to stay home if exhibiting any symptoms.

As of yet, only a few states have even begun to make progress on these measures to reduce transmission. Cases continue to rise in the majority of US states and some healthcare systems are on the verge of reaching capacity. Opening schools in this situation would be like throwing kindling on the fire.

Meanwhile, school districts across the country are slashing their budgets — making smaller class sizes, increased staff and adequate supplies a non-starter. Until our governments are willing to invest in our schools and healthcare capacity and to prioritize containing the virus over protecting profits, opening schools safely is impossible — no matter how much we would wish otherwise.

#3 — The childcare crisis resulting from these choices made by our government should not be shouldered by working parents

No working parent of a young child should be forced back to work when schools can’t open safely. Instead, we should be demanding that all working parents are guaranteed to keep their job whether or not they can return to physical work. Remote work arrangements should be encouraged where they are possible. Where they are not, parents should be guaranteed unemployment or paid leave for the duration of the school closures.

That such demands seem unrealistic is a feature of our economy’s priorities rather than a lack of resources. At least 14 countries are providing an income for those unable to work during the pandemic. This country’s billionaires have increased their wealth by more than half a trillion dollars during the pandemic while our essential workers have died in disproportionate numbers. Taxing the rich isn’t just the morally just response — it is the key to averting even more catastrophic death rates.

In addition to financial support for parents forced to stay home with kids, we also need to remove the pressures many families feel about school expectations. If schools cannot reopen, we should not expect that students are held to artificially high standards of academic learning. Instead, schools should accept the loss of learning time as inevitable and prioritize social and emotional connection.

These measures would not solve all of the problems families face as a result of school closures. Women will still be disproportionately impacted; kids will still have needs that can only be met in school; and the challenges of family life will still be heightened due to close proximity. But this could provide some breathing space and economic security, which could, in turn, make us more capable of organizing for all that we need.


These demands may feel unrealistic to hopeless and frustrated parents who desperately need their kids in school. So much of the pandemic response has been handled — or mishandled — by those in power without any regard for the needs of the vast majority of working people. It can be hard to imagine fighting for some of these measures.

But it’s also important to grasp that reopening schools under current conditions is equally unrealistic. The hybrid models being proposed will not solve our childcare crisis or meet the needs of our kids. The devastation as more people become sick will only further destabilize our economy and personal lives. And the pressure on us to accept this process of normalizing what should never be considered normal will just intensify.

In the last month, the Black Lives Matter Movement has shown the power that struggle has to change the conversation in this country and the priorities of those in charge. And it was only two years ago that a teachers’ strike wave united parents, teachers and community members, and highlighted the crisis of our public education system. In some of our largest school districts — Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago — parents and teachers have united in fights for the schools our children deserve and fought together for racial justice.

This is the kind of power and unity that we can draw on to insist that our lives — and those of our children — are prioritized over their profits. Naomi Klein has powerfully described how the “shock doctrine” is used by governments to take advantage of moments of extreme crisis to push through previously unthinkable attacks on social services and economic security. For public education, this is our shock doctrine moment. We need all of the solidarity and unity we can muster in order to resist it together.


If you want more resources on the pandemic and the school openings debate

In this piece, I examine the problems with the AAP recommendations to prioritize a return to in-person learning over CDC social distancing recommendations.

Here I discuss the issue of “lost learning time” and why we should not be putting pressure on teachers, kids and families to meet academic expectations right now.

And, finally, here is an article talking about the normalization of opening the economy and why (and how) we should resist the prioritization of profits over lives.

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Jen Roesch

Written by

Socialist, Writer, Mother, Teacher — Fighting for a World Worth Living In. I run a newsletter about schools in the time of COVID at JusticeLens.substack.com.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Jen Roesch

Written by

Socialist, Writer, Mother, Teacher — Fighting for a World Worth Living In. I run a newsletter about schools in the time of COVID at JusticeLens.substack.com.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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