• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

A Childcare Conundrum

If elementary schools aren't back full-time, we can't be.

July 7, 2020
 
 

Harvard, Rutgers and, most importantly, Brookdale formally announced on Monday that they’ll be online this fall, except for hands-on courses that just can’t be done any other way.

Everyone has personal opinions, based on a combination of facts, assumptions and priorities. In this case, part of the challenge was that the facts kept changing. Speaking only for myself, and not for my institution, I’ll admit that part of what tipped me in favor of the decision was childcare.

We keep hearing about K-12 schools going back on a part-time or rotational basis. That means both employees and students who have young children would be put in an utterly impossible position if we were to go fully face-to-face.

It’s a commonplace observation, though still true and worth making, that the K-12 system implicitly assumes the full-time presence of a parent -- typically a mom, with predictable consequences for gender equality in workplaces -- at home. That’s why schools have so many half days, holidays, professional days, breaks, June, July and August. That’s why it sends young children home at 2 p.m.

The Girl turns 16 this weekend, so we’re out of the heavy-supervision years. But 10 or so years ago, when TB was 9 and she was 6, it was hard. And that was with healthy kids and a standard class schedule.

Trying to imagine a family 10 years younger now, especially if one or more of the kids is in shaky health or has special needs, I honestly can’t figure out how to manage both the kids’ needs and two careers. There are only so many hours in the day. For single parents, it’s that much worse.

One way to handle that dilemma, of course, is just to outlaw it. That was Florida State’s approach. It mandated that parents who are working from home, and whose children are young, provide proof of a nanny or other caregiver, or be fired. It’s a solution that makes sense if you assume that everybody (including the nanny) is independently wealthy and working just to have something to do. If you assume, though, that people need their salaries, then it’s sexist and barbaric. When I read it, I initially thought I had missed the attribution to The Onion. If we had an actual, functioning judicial branch, I’d expect that to get tossed on “differential impact” in a millisecond. Alas, no.

More positively, Dan Hirschman and Jessica Calarco posted a piece yesterday that struck me as uncommonly thoughtful on this matter, even wise. They proposed disaggregating “schools” into sectors by age, and basing the “when to return” decision partly on the ages of the students: all else being equal, send preschool and elementary schools back first, then work your way up. As they pointed out, elementary school classes tend to stick to the same teacher all day, with relatively little interaction with other classes. That’s very different from high school and college, where students move from class to class and teacher to teacher over the course of a day. Any outbreaks would be easier to contain with classes that are more isolated from each other.

Additionally, whatever learning losses occur with online learning for teens, the losses are much greater for younger kids. The average 16-year-old is at least capable of learning in an online setting, even if they’d prefer not to. The average 6-year-old is another matter entirely. I have no qualms about leaving The Girl alone in the house at this point; 10 years ago, it would have been out of the question. (In a moment of candor, she recently admitted that part of the reason she’s looking forward to the quarantine lifting is so that everyone else will get out of the house and she’ll finally have some alone time.) Elementary schools provide education, socialization and, frankly, childcare. If elementary schools go back on a rotating or part-time basis, there’s no reasonable way to expect parents to be able to show up here full-time. Child neglect cannot be our business model.

By going mostly online this fall, I’m hoping that we’ll be able to allow both employees and students who have young children to do what they have to do. It’ll still be hard -- there’s no way around that -- but people will have the autonomy to make choices for themselves without losing everything.

We’re not going to try to outlaw the dilemma. We’ll help people work through it. Ideally, over time, as a society, we can change it. At some point, maybe we can find some sustainable medium in which full-time jobs don’t require monastic dedication, and school calendars don’t assume someone always at home. Until then, we -- including men -- can at least recognize the dilemma and take it seriously. Kids, and parents, are worth it.

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