Biden’s Economic Plan Finally Acknowledges the School Disaster
I’ve often thought, in this pandemic, about other times in my life that an event like this might have happened, and if those times would have been better or worse. College would have been terrible; high school would have been worse. When I was a new parent, having an infant would have kept me occupied; I wasn’t leaving the house much back then anyway. I wonder if the easiest times would have been when the only person I had to worry about was me. Everything’s harder when people are counting on you.
Now, I am a 45-year-old parent of a third grader and a first grader, and I’d argue those are the worst possible grades to be in during a pandemic. Elementary school is about basic foundational aspects of learning, but just as much, it is about developing vital skills of socialization. How do I deal with someone who disagrees with me? How can I learn about someone from a different background? What groups do I gravitate toward on the playground? How do I share? Math and reading and all your core primary curriculum are obviously important, but equally important is understanding what it means to be in a society, to interact with other humans, to, you know, live. My children, who have been virtual other than a brief three-week stretch since last March, have had none of that. They have just been indoors, staring at a screen, missing their friends, wondering why all this is happening, wondering when all of this will be over.
Teachers are doing their best, as are most administrators; I cannot fathom how difficult this has been for them. But it’s also tough to find many parents or kids, particularly around the age group of my kids, who don’t believe virtual schooling has been a total disaster that will damage these kids, and this whole generation, for decades to come. (You’ll start reading Generation Covid trend stories about the education gap in about five years, you watch.) And virtual schooling has further widened the chasm between wealthy white families and underrepresented poor ones; for many kids, physical school provides structure, organization and, often, the only healthy meal of the day. The New Yorker’s Alec McGinnis wrote a devastating story in October about the perils of having schools closed, about the millions of children being left behind. It’s an awful, awful situation.
Parents, consistently, from the beginning of the pandemic, have been told they are on their own. My wife and I, along with some other parents in our public school district, run a parents advocacy group here in Athens, Georgia, and it is heartbreaking to hear from parents who are desperate for answers to the most basic question every parent is constantly asking themselves: What am I supposed to do? Our district has wildly shifted from online learning to in-person schooling back to online, with deadlines being moved and altered, making it impossible for any parent to have the slightest idea what they’re even supposed to be planning for. That not only is disorienting for the kids, it’s destabilizing for the parents and their job situations. My wife and I are lucky: We both have jobs where we can work at home, in a place with reliable wireless access and steady lunches every day. Most parents are not so fortunate, particularly in a pandemic.
Parents have to work and they also have to provide child care for their first grader who is suddenly home all day. It is untenable. The questions come in to us from parents all over our region. Has there been any communication about support for those families that now have to sacrifice work, yet again, for virtual schooling? Has there been any consideration into county funding for those who will continue to miss work to essentially homeschool? Are facilities opening up just to help with school? How do you get help when you can’t promise anyone you’d bring in how long they’ll be needed?
The answer has been, consistently: You’re on your own. Figure it out. This, nationwide, has led to impossible decisions and, inevitably, a flood of women exiting the workforce, a stunning 2.2 million between February and November. The residual effect of this is unfathomable. We’ll never truly recover. And to ask for help, or to even point this out, has been fruitless: Screaming into the void.
Which is why, during this most wretched of American fortnights, Thursday provided a small ray of hope. President-elect Joe Biden announced his massive economic and coronavirus plan, an estimated $1.9 trillion in spending meant to be, as The New York Times put it, “a wish list of spending measures meant to help both people and the economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic, from state and local aid and more generous unemployment benefits to mass vaccinations.” It is up in the air how much of this plan will make it through Congress, whether Biden will end up pushing much of it through via budget reconciliation, if it’s too much or not enough. But, for the first time, in that budget … someone has finally noticed how much of a nightmare this has been for parents, families and children.
As Matthew Yglesias pointed out in his Slow Boring newsletter, there is a whole section specifically dedicated not just to getting all schools back open, but also to easing the burden on parents. The plan includes:
- Hiring 100,000 public health workers to ramp up testing capabilities, specifically for institutions like schools. Imagine public schools having rapid testing for anyone who enters the school building. How could you argue against schools being open then?
- Adding not just $1,400 to stimulus checks, but increasing unemployment insurance.
- From Yglesias: “They also want to put money directly into helping child care centers stay open, and another official said there will be provisions ‘increasing tax credits to cover the cost of child care for one year.’ One-year tax credit programs turn out to be a larger theme because they also want to expand the EITC to include workers without kids for one year, and to enhance the Child Tax Credit for one year. The beefed-up CTC would provide $3,600 a year to parents of kids under 6, and $3,000 a year to parents of older kids. It would also be fully refundable — i.e., no longer exclude the poorest families.” As Yglesias points out, Vox’s Dylan Matthews went into deeper detail on this, pointing out it could mean as much as $3,600 to parents of small children, while making sure public schools are back open.
Maybe these plans will pass and maybe they won’t. But they mark the first time in this pandemic when the federal government has looked at the nightmare that parents are going through with virtual schooling and said, “We see you. We’re here to help.” From my experience, that’s brand new. I do not know what this period is going to do to my third grader and my first grader, and elementary school kids all across this country, for decades to come. But I do know that we need to find a way out of it. Up to this point, not only has there been no interest in helping, there has seemingly been no acknowledgement of the problem, of the pain. Again: Maybe this will work and maybe it won’t. But it’s, at last, a goddamned start.
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.