Reprinted from the Chicago Tribune.
We are facing so many crises all at the same time. Covid-19 infections rates are again rising statewide, a pandemic of racial oppression has spawned an uprising in our city as well as around the Globe, and sky high unemployment rates threaten the stability of Illinois families. Our most immediate crisis is what to do with the kids this fall. Chicago Public Schools are starting the year online entirely, perhaps offering a hybrid model in the next quarter. Can this really work? For children? For their parents?
How’s a parent to keep their own job with children at home as much as they are in school? Parents lucky enough to still be employed are literally at their wits end trying to figure out how to keep their own jobs while becoming their children’s teachers. Research shows some mothers are already reducing their hours in the labor force.
You simply cannot be both a worker and a full-time parent teacher at the same moment.
We need the option for children to learn at home, without disrupting their parent’s employment. Let’s hire some of those unemployed workers to be “learning pod” supervisors for children in small groups in their own homes. All kids need supervision to learn at home, not just those whose parents can afford the time or money.
Middle class parents are already exploring the option of “learning pods” for their children’s home schooling. A “learning pod” can be several families who gather their children together taking turns supervising online education. For wealthier families, a pod might mean hiring someone to supervise (or even teach) children so that the parents can meet their work responsibilities. So what’s the catch?
Given the differential percentage of white, Black and Latinx children whose parents can create learning pods, their very existence for some but not all of America’s children will increase racial inequality. The children of bus drivers, grocery store clerks, and janitors will not benefit from pods. The children who will benefit are those of middle-class workers who can share the pod parent duty, or those wealthy enough to hire someone else to do it.
A problem with roots in systemic racial inequality cannot have a solution in the individual choice of parents.
If schools are closed, we need home-based alternatives. In an analysis my colleagues and I did for the New York Times, we found evidence that it is mothers who are doing the vast majority of home-schooling. Some estimates are that it may take a generation for women to regain the level of gender (in)equality we have in 2020 as women are pushed out of the labor force because their children are not going to school.
I propose a child care infrastructure to be a new work progress administration (WPA). The New Deal WPA put unemployed Americans back to work during the Great Depression building roads, and other infrastructure. This 21st Century WPA should build an infrastructure of care starting by matching unemployed people with families in their own communities, and employ them as “pod supervisors.” Teachers could have direct communication with all the Pod supervisors for their students. In the absence of open schools, “learning pods” could work for our entire community, not just for the middle-class primarily white parents who can spend the time to host it or have the money to pay for it.
The federal government should fund the WPA again. Unfortunately, the federal government has shown itself too dysfunctional to manage any federal response to the pandemic. And so if it does not, it falls to the states, or even the cities to do so. Are you listening Governor Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot? The organization and hiring has to be done at the local level. We aren’t going to find people with any kind of certification for these jobs, as they must start so quickly. These “pod supervisors” are to help children do their online work, assigned and assessed by teachers.
The WPA is the only way to move forward quickly educating students, without risking increasing infection rates. This solution does not increase gender inequality by pushing mothers out of the labor nor increase racial achievement gaps by privatizing the supervision of online schooling. There are problems that will need to be worked out, but we must move quickly. So far the United States of America has totally mismanaged this health crises, now is our chance to find an innovative solution for children without contributing to racial and gender inequality. We can do it America. Let’s fund a new care taking WPA.
Barbara J. Risman, Ph.D., is a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Where The Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure.