Sometimes it seems as if Democrats are so preoccupied with opposing reopening policies, many times viewed as Republican-oriented, that they fail to consider more nuanced responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is particularly harmful as the continuing closures of public schools, libraries and playgrounds exacerbate inequality and facilitate a relapse to American individualism.
Rather than merely opposing reopening policies, Democrats should promote creative alternatives that will enable safe and equal access to public services in the COVID-19 era. Otherwise, they will end up contributing to the already alarming inequality that prevails in the U.S.
Public services are not a luxury, and their closure comes at a high cost. As we debate the way forward, we must face the implications of the disappearance of the public in the COVID-19 era. When public schools, playgrounds, pools and libraries were closed in the spring, each of us was asked to seek private shelter. For many of us, however, there is no “shelter.”
We’ve already witnessed how the requirement to find shelter at home during the “shelter in place” phase in New York City, for example, wasn’t as effective in stopping the spread of the virus in lower social-economic neighborhoods. Research conducted by the NYU Furman Center found that for those living in small apartments and crowded neighborhoods who can’t work remotely, the private shelter was not enough. Such disparities will persist and increase if public services, and especially public schools, remain closed.
The modern economy is grounded on the ability to rely on schools to enable parents to work a 40-hour week. Without public schools, millions of American working parents are left without access to the labor market. Millions of kids are left without an adequate education.
When public schools do not offer a safe in-person alternative, parents have to find solutions based on their differential resources: paying a tutor to facilitate homeschooling while they work from home, quitting a job, or relying on their existing social networks. Some families have opted to create small pods of children, alternating adult supervision between multiple households. For many other Americans, however, this is not an option. Already underpaid, millions of working parents are required to juggle household responsibilities and paid labor. Many of them have neither the flexibility nor the means needed for alternative arrangements.
Online-only instruction is not a viable solution for millions of kids and working mothers. With limited public-school services, children’s academic prospects depend largely on their parents’ unequal capacities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that online learning may be damaging to all kids but “disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities. These students are far less likely to have access to private instruction and care and far more likely to rely on key school-supported resources like food programs, special education services, counseling, and after-school programs to meet basic developmental needs.”
Online-only instruction also heightens gender inequality. For example, data on the achievements of scientists during the pandemic indicates that even middle class educated mothers are vulnerable to their children’s transition to online education, as women with young children reported a significant decrease in time dedicated to research.
The lack of a nationwide concerted effort to contain the spread of the virus is frustrating. And in locations with more severe restrictions on social and commercial activity, the numbers of cases have decreased significantly. In other words, closures work. Yet as we move forward, Americans need to generate creative solutions for safe access to public services. It is not enough at this point to resign ourselves to continued closures.
Now is the time to invest strategically and significantly in the public. Instead of saying “no” to reopening, advocate within your district for what can make reopening imaginable: providing tutoring services, offering smaller classes, having an outside library and schools. Extend medical health coverage and increase public school funding. With these issues at the heart of a national strategy, the American public may be preserved when COVID-19 is behind us.
Inbal Leibovits is a doctoral student in communication studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News.