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If schools don't reopen, will parents have to choose between jobs and kids?

"I am simmering with white hot rage."
/ Source: TODAY

With as little as a month before school starts in some areas and COVID-19 diagnoses spiking in some of those same places, parents are wondering whether they have to choose between their jobs and their kids.

"This situation isn't just untenable, it's impossible."

After word reached parents in New York City that the department of education was considering a hybrid plan for reopening schools that would allow students at school for part of the week, Smitten Kitchen founder Deb Perelman tweeted what she later called the "primal scream that we — and countless other parents for whom this situation isn't just untenable, it's impossible — have been feeling since March."

Perelman said a hybrid reopening plan would leave working parents "ground up in the gears" between reopened cities and closed or partially closed schools.

"I wish someone would just say the quiet part out loud," Perelman tweeted. "In the COVID economy, you're only allowed a kid OR a job."

Perelman concluded her self-described rant, "What I am simmering with white hot rage over is the idea that both plans are moving ahead — an open economy but mostly closed schools, camps — as if it would be totally okay if a generation of parents lost their careers, insurance, and livelihoods in the process. It's outrageous."

Other school systems have begun to announce plans, including those for Lexington, Massachusetts, public schools, where the only two options for parents and students will be remote learning or a hybrid plan.

Some Lexington parents responded to the announcement with frustration that there is no plan in place for the children of working parents, calling it "deaf" to their feedback and saying it "ignored" data and guidance from experts.

Many parents dread the impossible situation of working in an economy that's reopening while schools aren't.

"I get nauseated thinking about our most likely scenario for the fall, which will be remote learning and requires lots of hands-on time with them," said Madison Agee, a communications director for a large medical center in Nashville, Tennessee, whose children are 12 and 8. "They require direction to stay on task and that is a huge time and energy requirement. It’s just not tenable when I am on Zoom calls eight hours a day."

University of Maryland economics professor Melissa Kearney told TODAY Parents that Perelman's rant identified a crucial issue for our country.

"We're not doing nearly enough to figure out how to get kids back to school — which is critical, both for kids' development and learning — and workers back to work," said Kearney, a mother of three school-age children who is also the director of the Aspen Economic Strategy Group and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Kearney recently used government statistics to determine that one quarter of American workers have children under the age of 13, which Kearney used as the hypothetical age minimum for the ability to stay home alone unsupervised.

Kearney found that only 16% have a non-working spouse at home who could supervise and care for the children.

If schools cannot totally reopen, many American parents will have to choose between childcare and their jobs. "I'm not sure how people are supposed to piece that together," Kearney said.

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Kearney said that she worries most for the families of low-wage and essential workers who are less likely to have the ability to work from home. "They are expected to go to work, but there is no provision for high quality or safe childcare for their kids. It's not clear what they are supposed to be doing about their children," she said.

Instead of debating when to reopen restaurants and bars, Kearney said if we want to help our economy and keep our children safe, people should focus more on child care.

"Our entire public conversation about this pandemic and our response to it needs to put much more weight and emphasis on child well-being and safety through all of this," she said.

"In every public policy decision we make, there are trade-offs and risks and rewards. We know it is infeasible to get the risk of transmission of this virus down to zero, so what are the rewards for keeping schools for young kids closed — given what we know about the science and its transmission — and what are the costs for keeping schools closed?"

Dr. Uché Blackstock is CEO of Advancing Health Equity and a Harvard-trained emergency room physician who has been working in a hospital through the pandemic.

"Up until now, it has been unclear whether it would be safe for schools to reopen," Blackstock said.

Blackstock noted that child care centers that stayed open for essential workers in New York City during the height of the pandemic there did not see spikes in positive diagnoses of the virus, and that as scientific data has emerged about how young children do — or, more importantly, do not — transmit the virus, she believes there is a way to safely reopen schools for children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees. AAP President Dr. Sally Goza told TODAY that the goal should be re-opening schools full-time for the fall semester, with safety precautions in place. "

Whether it's safe for teachers, administrators and support staff is another question.

The president of the National Education Association, the labor union that represents millions of teachers and support staff, expressed concern at a full return to school, saying the health and safety of students, families and educators should be the deciding factor.

"As a parent, given the data, I would feel comfortable sending my children back to school in the fall, safety-wise," Blackstock said. Her oldest child will be entering first grade in a New York City public school in the fall.

Blackstock said she is worried about knowledge decay if students cannot return to school this year.

Kearney said policy leaders should get creative.

"We need to be thinking outside the box," she said. "Why are we not talking about putting more classrooms outside in places where that is feasible? Why are we not talking about bringing in young people or young adults to monitor children while they're doing online schooling, but in a safe school environment where there is food and supervision?"

"It's inexcusable that in a country and innovative and rich as ours, we can't figure this out," she said.