News Update

Opinion: Parents' fury over school closures is righteous, but misdirected

Kara  Alaimo Kara  Alaimo
University of Indiana Bloomington sociologist Jessica Calarco, who surveys parents, says we’re doing worse now than we were at the start of the pandemic. Seventy percent of mothers say they’re overwhelmed, according to her research.
So it’s not surprising that the debate about who is responsible for this crisis is getting ugly. But two of the parties taking heat lately are the very last people we should be blaming: American women and Democrats. It’s time we all instead turn our attention to those who are actually at fault: the people perpetuating vaccine misinformation and those who, long before the pandemic and continuing now, have failed to provide families with adequate support.
Mothers who have argued that schools should stay open say they’ve been called racist or “Karens” — and say they’ve heard privately from other moms who are afraid even to speak up for fear of being ostracized.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the debate, teachers’ unions — which are largely made up of women — have been enduring unjustified public wrath. Before ultimately reaching a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union after a contentious battle over remote learning, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot accused teachers of holding kids “hostage.” Debating whether schools in the US should have been closed to the degree they were during the first two years of the pandemic is fair, but that doesn’t justify extreme language or condemnation of union leaders for taking their responsibilities to make schools safe now seriously.
Remember that most teachers never signed up to teach during a pandemic, yet unions are largely asking for safety measures, not full school shutdowns.
What’s more, some teachers have understandable reasons for not wanting to teach in person at a time of such high case counts — such as being parents to kids who are too young for vaccines or having their own underlying health conditions. A lot of parents want our children in school and acknowledge that’s the best option for many kids, but it would be ideal for districts to provide remote options for the families and teachers who have legitimate reasons for requesting them.
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Parents who direct their anger at moms in this impossible debate about how to balance children’s educations and health keep the focus off those who are actually harming kids. The ugliness of these exchanges reminds me of the supposed culture wars between stay-at-home and working moms, which has for years conveniently taken attention away from businesses and lawmakers for their lack of family-friendly policies that make motherhood near impossible for us all. But it’s especially unconscionable to attack moms now — given that we’re the ones who largely deal with the fallout when schools shut down or our kids get sick.
Another group wrongly being blamed for this crisis is Democrats (often at the state and local level). Some parents are now angrily faulting the party for not being more insistent that schools stay open. It’s true that, early on, unlike European countries, some American politicians left businesses like restaurants open while schools were closed. But that shameful policy was largely led by Republican governors, in states like Georgia, Florida and Texas.
And now, the ire of these parents is incredibly misguided. The way to keep schools open is to stop the spread of this virus by getting more people vaccinated. The other best way to help moms is to solve our child care crisis. These are both things Democrats at every level are trying to do.
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The biggest enemies of parents right now are people who refuse to get vaccinated. We need all eligible people to get vaccines to reduce community spread in order to keep schools open and safe — and to protect kids who are too young for vaccines. If we want to blame anyone for our problems, we should start with the unvaccinated.
We should also be calling out the people and organizations who enable anti-vaxxers, from social networks that host their misinformation to companies that don’t require their employees to get vaccinated.
Of course, it’s unlikely that a lot of the people who oppose vaccines vociferously will change their minds at this point, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re the responsible party.
Democrats simply aren’t the enemy here: Like Democrats throughout the country, President Joe Biden has been imploring people to get vaccinated and tried requiring large companies to implement vaccine mandates or testing, but was stymied by the Supreme Court in a truly outrageous ruling.
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With many refusing vaccines, the best thing we can do is also, of course, mask up — a policy also largely favored by Democrats but opposed by some Republicans, including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who recently repealed school mask mandates.
The other thing parents most need right now is affordable, accessible child care. The cost of child care in centers has risen sharply during the pandemic, according to a Lending Tree report.
In September, the Treasury department said over 60% of families are paying more for child care than they can afford. That’s if they can access it at all: Child care centers (and parents like me who have babies who are too young to wear masks and therefore want to hire providers in our homes) are finding it incredibly difficult to find workers. Last month, there were 111,400 fewer people working as child care providers than in January 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A big part of the problem is that our country doesn’t invest in kids. The average rich nation spends $14,436 per child on child care per year. The US spends $500.
Democrats have tried to fix this, of course. Biden’s Build Back Better plan would — among many other policy priorities — subsidize child care for most parents of children under age 6 and provide universal preschool for 3 and 4-year-olds. It would be the biggest expansion of public education in a century. So rather than yelling at Democrats in general, who are trying to fix the problem, it would be fairer to express outrage at Republicans who don’t support it and the Democratic senators standing in the way of its passage: Joe Manchin and, to a lesser extent, Kyrsten Sinema. Even if, hypothetically, all of them object to other parts of Build Back Better and not its child care provisions, any one of them could put forward their own legislative efforts to address this gaping need for parents and caregivers. But that’s not what’s happening.
It’s understandable that parents are super stressed right now. But that’s not an excuse to blame the people trying to get us out of this mess. Also recall that it was the Republican Trump administration that failed to manage the pandemic properly at the outset, which got us into this crisis in the first place. And some Republicans, like Youngkin, have been resisting measures to contain the virus. Weakening the Democratic party stands to help elect more politicians like this — which would be the very worst outcome possible for moms.
Moms, teachers and Democrats are largely not to blame for this raging pandemic. If parents want our nightmare to end, we’ve got to call out the anti-vaxxers and opponents of child care measures who are responsible for perpetuating it. And we all have to actively support political candidates at every level of government who favor vaccines, public masking and infrastructure improvements to keep schools open and safe, along with smart policies to make child care available and affordable for every family.
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