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July 24, 2020

Parents will ultimately decide how and when kids will get back to learning in the fall.

It may feel like summer just started, but around the country, students are getting ready to head back to school — some as early as next week — which means parents are under pressure to understand and prepare for how to support their children and balance work and family life during a pandemic.

The U.S. secretary of education and other state and federal government leaders (Democrats and Republicans alike) are eager for schools to reopen, while teachers’ unions and public health experts say there is still too much uncertainty and risk to make in-person instruction possible. But the truth is that parents will decide how much learning will happen this fall. And this raises the question: “What do parents need to safely send children back to school and return to work themselves?”

A recent survey reported more than 50% of parents say that sending their children back to school in the fall makes them “extremely” or “very” concerned, and rightfully so. States and districts are still trying to determine their plans for instruction, activities and transportation as the coronavirus crisis continues. Throughout the spring, we watched as some states announced their decisions on learning without first advising or engaging with their schools and educators. Recent headlines suggest that some state leaders still have work to do when it comes to good communication and engaging their audiences.

An even greater challenge is one that parents of younger children face: child care. Child care options are invaluable for many families due to an uptick in closures; 40% of child care providers say they will permanently close without additional government funding to get them through this turmoil. How can we expect parents to be working or supporting e-learning, when they are still caring for infants or toddlers throughout the day?

It’s time to listen to parents before good intentions make matters worse.

Here are the top ways leaders can support parents and get our schools and economy back on track:

FLEXIBLE WORKPLACES.

For nearly six months, parents have been trying to balance work with family life. For some, remote work is an option and an easy shift. For other parents, their jobs require them to be physically present (can we get a shout out for all our essential workers?). While a select number of employers understand the challenge and have tried to accommodate their employees’ needs, many more are resistant to finding ways to work with their employees and retain their talent. Child care centers remain closed for the most part, but businesses are reopening anyway. Parents need flexible employers and understanding colleagues who will work with and support them, so they can continue parenting while also working. For some parents, this may mean shift changes, so they are going into work less often; others may need to work outside regular business hours so they can care for their children during the day. Offering support to parents in the workplace will go a long way to ensuring a business can sustain its productivity in this ever-changing environment and earn loyalty from its workforce.

AFFORDABLE, HIGH-QUALITY CHILD CARE.

The child care system pre-pandemic was already grossly out of reach for low- and middle-income families, especially for families of color and people living in child care deserts. Only through additional funding for high-quality child care will there be a way for traditional child care centers or home-based centers, which make up the majority of providers in our country, to safely keep their doors open. That funding must be a priority in the next CARES package, so when parents can return to work, they have a safe, trusted place for their child. And let’s be clear: Child care is early-childhood education. The first three years of a child’s life lay a foundation for learning success once they enter the K-12 system. Ignoring these investments is setting up future generations to struggle.

REAL COMMUNICATION WITH LEADERS.

It’s 2020. There is no excuse for state education, public health and other sector leaders not soliciting feedback and recommendations from parents on how to develop a smart, practical reopening plan that is achievable. Every state should be reaching out to parent groups for input, generating surveys of parents and caregivers, and working with constituents to advise on recovery efforts. The lines of communication must be opened if state leaders want to see success. Leverage websites, social media channels and media partners to help gather information and feedback on how realistic the plans are and where changes need to be made.

HEALTH RESOURCES FOR PARENTS AND THEIR CHILDREN.

A weekly University of Oregon survey of parents found that from April to June, anxiety decreased for some parents — but not all. Surprisingly, the responses for the groups with increased stress levels were not necessarily tied to job loss or lack of paid sick leave. Parents have a lot on their plates, and while their days early on might have gotten into a rhythm, it’s now July, and there’s no end in sight. Some are struggling with material hardships, while others are trying to manage their children’s stress, anxiety and trauma. Let’s find ways to give parents the resources they need to support their children through these times, as well as the confidence that they are capable, and the reassurance that they are not alone in this struggle.

There’s no parenting book on how to raise a child in a pandemic. Feelings of insecurity and complete chaos are weighing heavily on many parents as they try to imperfectly navigate this reality, but leaders can lessen the burden of this challenge by listening to parents and creating policies and plans that work for them.  

 

 

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