It’s the newest front in America’s parenting wars.
Parents, forced to figure out how to care for and educate their children in a pandemic, are being judged and criticized on message boards and in backyard meetups and virtual PTA meetings. If parents send their children to schools that reopen, are they endangering them and their teachers? If they keep them home, are they pulling support from schools and depriving their children? If they keep working while schools are closed, are they neglecting their children in a time of need? If they hire someone to help with remote school, are they widening achievement gaps and contributing to inequality?
“This is what you selfish parents are so gung-ho for,” someone wrote under a photo of a crowded school hallway on a Washington, D.C., parents forum.
In a Portland, Oregon, Facebook group, parents called other parents racist for hiring tutors for small learning groups when not all families could afford it: “Can’t be a part of something that on purpose perpetuates racism,” one wrote. “Shameful.”
And in a Reddit discussion about schools in West Chester, Pennsylvania, someone blamed parents for supporting the district’s choice to open virtually: “It is sickening especially when you see people cheering on these decisions.”
But the shaming, scholars say, is distracting from the larger societal issues underlying the problem. Parents have been left stranded with very little in the way of support.
“There is a natural human tendency to want to blame it on someone else when this is truly a systemic problem,” said Prudence Carter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. “Parents are trying to do the best they can to survive and take care of their own personal situation because we really don’t have a government or leadership right now that’s trying to coordinate this across the nation.”
Young children need child care and help with remote school, and public health guidance is to avoid large groups. Some schools have provided computers and lunches to students in need, but little else, and because they cannot say when it will be safe to reopen, it is hard for parents to plan alternative arrangements. Families’ needs vary — considerations include children’s learning differences; parents’ work schedules and incomes; and high-risk family members. Out of necessity, parents are grasping for any solution they can find.
Compounding the anxiety of the pandemic school year is the national conversation about racism and inequity that arose after the death of George Floyd in police custody. More Americans are grappling with the role of structural racism in society and how their individual decisions about things like schooling have contributed to it. In some places, schools have disavowed tutoring pods because, they say, they contribute to inequity.
“I’m certainly thinking about it all the time, in this moment of heightened awareness of racism and anti-Blackness and COVID racial disparities,” said Carter, who studies racial and other inequalities in schools and society. “We’re all in this together. How could we think more communitarian-like as opposed to individualistic? But to expect any one family to be able to solve that problem is not a rational thing.”
Although school closings are an extreme circumstance, the United States has long considered it the responsibility of individual families to figure out child care. What’s new is that the usual solutions parents patch together — schools, child care programs, babysitters, relatives and neighbors — are less likely to be available now because of the need for social distancing.
There was a period in the 1970s and early 1980s, after women had begun entering the workforce in large numbers, when the country considered the idea that government and employer policies could help both men and women work and care for their families, through flexible hours, subsidized child care and paid leave. But the country landed on the opposite approach.
The United States stands out among rich countries in its lack of family-friendly policies. Swedish parents, for example, get 16 months of paid leave that can be used until their children are 8, and subsidized preschool. Some Canadian parents have up to 18 months of paid leave.
Individualizing decisions like these appeals to American ideals of independence and freedom. It also works to ensure that they remain individual decisions because, research shows, it ends up reducing support for public policies in support of the greater good and decreasing empathy for people with fewer advantages.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Feeling guilty about parenting decisions in this context is distinctly American among advanced nations, according to social scientists. Unlike mothers in European countries, U.S. mothers tend to blame themselves when decisions don’t turn out well rather than other forces, according to research by Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Moms are feeling acute and crushing guilt,” she said. “We think of families as a private and personal responsibility, and in the face of a global pandemic, it means this work falls on women’s shoulders. There is no good choice, and instead of blaming larger structural forces, women in America tend to always blame themselves.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)La Tosha Plavnik, the mother of a second grader in Clifton, Virginia, has stopped talking to most of her friends about her family’s plans for the school year because she felt too much judgment. Remote learning during the spring was very hard for her daughter and for their relationship, Plavnik said. So for the fall she has formed a pod of three children and hired a tutor to teach them supplementary material one day a week. The other days, her mother-in-law will help with remote school.
“Every little thing I say I’m doing, that I’ve decided is best for my daughter, there is this wave of backlash to the point where I’ve stopped telling people about my decisions,” she said. “I’m Black, and online, people call me an elite racist because we formed a pod. I think it’s just easier to scream racist because we don’t want to address the fundamental issues.”
Researchers and policymakers have suggested ideas for policies that could help bigger numbers of families. In some cases, they are happening at the local level, overseen by school districts, businesses or nonprofits.
The principal of a public school in San Francisco, when she heard parents were forming pods, decided that the school should have its own learning pods so that no one was excluded. A doctoral candidate in education, observing that many communities of color have long relied on group caregiving arrangements, proposed that universities and community resource groups help form pods in an equitable way.
Schools in New York and elsewhere have considered opening only for the children most in need. And in other countries, schools have been able to open for many more children. It’s been possible in large part because, more than has happened in the United States, governments have taken major steps to control the virus and given schools money to introduce health measures.
Lengthy paid leave could enable parents to afford to stay home with their children (some U.S. workers are eligible for 12 weeks of leave for child care at partial pay). Others have suggested that the government could send parents checks to pay for child care or other services. There have been proposals for a national tutoring corps or caregiving corps, financed by the government or foundations, in which people who need work or are already doing this work could be matched with families who can’t afford to hire private nannies or tutors.
“Women have always been figuring this out on their own, and Black women especially, so it feels like there’s something to build on there,” said Julie Kashen, director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation, a progressive policy research institute. “Let’s take all this informal stuff we’ve had and give it resources.”