For generations, school has been a place for children to learn and make friends. But in the United States, school is important to many parents for another reason. It is a safe place that cares for their children while they are working — or a necessity for them to be able to work at all.
The spread of the coronavirus this year, and the resulting changes, have caused these ideas of school in American life to collide. Now, President Donald Trump is demanding that schools reopen in a few weeks. But with virus infection rates rising, many working parents see no good options.
Michelle Brinson lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She works full-time for a nonprofit group while raising her 11-year-old child alone. She told The Associated Press she does not have the option of a husband or other family member to care for her son.
At age 50, and with health conditions, Brinson says she is “terrified” of getting infected with the coronavirus. She is worried that if her son goes back to school, he could bring the virus home to her. If I’m dead or connected to breathing equipment, she says, “what good am I to him?”
This is not the first time American schools have closed — or talked about it — because of an epidemic. It happened in 1918 with an influenza pandemic and in the 1930s and 1950s, when polio was a major health issue.
But the nature of school has changed completely since the 1950s, notes education historian Jonathan Zimmerman. School used to teach basic skills and citizenship, but extensive schooling was not needed for many jobs.
The whole structure of the economy changed after World War II. And schooling became a necessity for personal independence like it never had before, he explained. In a way, schools have also become like social service agencies. They provide necessities like meals and mental health services.
That is where the conflict comes in. Asking a parent to work full time while supervising schooling and daytime meals can lead to stress and impossible expectations. That is especially true for a parent trying to raise a child alone.
Rebecca Witte offers evidence of that. For Witte, the experience of working from home while helping her two young children finish the school year from home is not one she wants to repeat.
Witte works as a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Corrections. During a coronavirus outbreak that infected more than 900 prisoners, she remembers her children coming into the room and shouting one day while she was being interviewed. Her husband, the head of a school, shared the homeschooling responsibilities but was also busy helping teachers at his school move to online learning.
“Trying to work, it was hard,” Rebecca Witte said. She is waiting to see what the plan is for the new school year and is “hopeful they won’t be home full time with me trying to teach and work.”
Before the virus, Michelle Brinson says she went to her workplace every day and her son went to school and then went to after-school programs daily. Brinson was totally unprepared when schools closed in March. So, she took several days off until she got permission to work from home. Now her employer is pushing her to come back to the office.
Yet in many ways, Brinson and Witte are lucky. Their jobs offer at least some room for compromise.
Taryn Walker has been depending on her two teenage children to care for her 5-year-old child while she works as an office assistant. Her offices never closed and she is not permitted to work from home.
The situation has also hurt Walker financially as her food costs rise. “Because they are home all day, I’m paying two or three times the amount I did before,” she says.
But Walker also does not feel safe sending the children back to school.
Elizabeth Ananat is an economics professor at Barnard College in New York City. She served as an economic advisor to Barack Obama during his presidency. She has been surveying a group of 1,000 hourly service workers for almost a year. Ananat told the AP she has found that working families with young children have been especially harmed by the health crisis.
Parents need to work to pay for food but also need to care for their children. And they cannot risk getting sick. Those issues existed before. But the lack of school and other childcare programs and the deadly nature of the virus are adding to the pressures.
Ananat calls the situation a disaster. She says federal aid for businesses and the unemployed has helped, but not everyone who was eligible was able to get it. But now much of that money is running out, she notes.
And businesses are pressuring parents to return to the workplace, while school systems do not have a plan to make that happen, Ananat says.
In Florida and Texas, two states with rising infection rates, officials are requiring school districts to offer in-person schooling to those who want it.
I’m Alice Bryant.
The Associated Press reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
collide – v. to crash together or to crash into something
option – n. the chance or ability to choose something or to choose between two or more things
terrified – adj. extremely afraid
epidemic – n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people
stress – n. a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life
interview – v. to question or talk with someone in order to get information
teenage – adj. between the ages of 13 and 19
survey – v. to ask many people a series of questions to gather information about what people do or think about something
eligible – adj. able to do or receive something
school district – n. an area or region containing the schools that a school board is in charge of