Parents and teachers in Arlington Public Schools (APS) have submitted their choices for either a hybrid of two days in school plus three days of virtual learning, or full-time virtual learning. Parent results indicate that a majority chose the hybrid option. APS has not yet released the teacher results, and they should. Notwithstanding the choices, the school board approved the superintendent’s decision to start school on September 8 rather than August 31, and to begin entirely online and defer the hybrid option until it is safe to return. While I agree with that decision, I remain deeply concerned about the students for which school is much more than a place of learning. For our most vulnerable students, school provides meals, security, safety, social services, care & supervision, and special education.
The ability to return to gainful employment is the key to rebooting our economy. Any plan short of having students back in school five days-a-week presents a childcare conundrum that threatens the economic stability of parents, the county, and the country. Parents with means will hire nannies or au pairs, close-knit neighbors will establish “pods” to manage child-care and supervision of virtual learning. Few families can rely on grandparents for childcare because of the inherent risks of COVID-19. Some two-parent households may be able to alternate child-care/supervision. Single-parent households don’t have that option. The inequities are glaring.
APS and the county can no longer operate in silos. We need #OneArlington. County leaders must be invested in the safe reopening of our schools. I applaud APS and the county for beginning to think about the childcare needs of our teachers and first responders as part of the reopening plan. The same needs to be done for other working parents, particularly our moderate earners who must work outside the home. We need partnerships with community organizations, churches, and businesses to provide childcare solutions so that learning can continue when parents are at work. This will boost Arlington’s economy and our students’ education.
We have community centers, libraries, public parks, churches, that could be repurposed for this. APS and the county must brainstorm creative solutions to make reopening schools equitable for parents and teachers who must work outside the home. Let me be clear: By childcare, I don’t mean babysitting. I mean safe spaces conducive to facilitating virtual learning. We have unemployed residents who could be hired for this. If they don’t figure this out, learning will not occur all five days, widening an already unacceptable academic gap that was further exacerbated from three months of school closure.
Absent childcare solutions, financially vulnerable families will slip further into poverty if they forego working to supervise their child’s learning. Child abuse and neglect cases may rise. Absent childcare solutions, teachers will be forced to choose between teaching our children and caring for their own, leading to a teacher shortage. These are untenable choices to make and unreasonable ones to expect. Let’s become #OneArlington and do this.
It’s time to reinvent our schools. This pandemic has shone a floodlight on the fact that schools are much more than a place for learning. For our most vulnerable students, schools provide much-needed meals, structure, predictability, a safe space, mental health, socio-emotional support. For all younger children, the schools provide child care, which most parents need to be able to work. The key to rebooting the economy is getting people back to work. Parents cannot return to work without child care. Not having child care disparately impacts women, because most child-care responsibilities fall to women. Next fall, APS will not be able to welcome all of its students back to full-time, in-person instruction. As we think about next school year, we should start with an analysis of what we need for our students and our families. Not only do we need full-time instruction, but also full-time food service, and full-time IEP and wrap-around services. We need to keep the exposure risk for students and for teachers and school staff, as low as possible. For children 6th grade and below, we need full-time child care. Any plan short of full-time child care is going to increase the inequities that exist in Arlington. Parents need child care so they can work. For any time children aren’t in school or in County child care, parents who can afford it will be able to hire a nanny or enroll their children in small, group-based care. But those are the families who are already doing okay. Other families will be facing difficult choices: Put their children in child care with bigger groups of children, increasing their exposure to COVID-19; leave their children home alone; ask potentially vulnerable family members to watch their children, or forego work opportunities. None of these scenarios are good options.Any plan short of full-time child care has the real potential of increasing the spread of COVID-19. If APS does a part-time school option, rotating which students come to school each day or week, many will go to child care on the days they are not in school. This is likely to significantly increase the number of people those children are exposed to the virus. By increasing the risks that the children get sick, this increases the risks to our teachers. Our goal should be a plan that has a place for children who need child care to go every day. Distance learning at home should be provided for children who opt-out. We can accomplish these goals through a collaboration between APS and Arlington County, and by providing different models for different groups of students:
- APS could provide full-time in-person instruction in its elementary school buildings to all students in Pre Kindergarten, Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades, and those students with disabilities and English Language learners who would learn best in that environment.
- For students in 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade, APS could provide instruction through distance learning, and Arlington County could provide child care at community centers, libraries, churches, other private space, and, for 6th grade, the middle schools. APS and the county could collaborate to provide “wrap-around services”, like food service and counseling, at these child care centers. These child care centers could be funded through a combination of public subsidy and private funding, from employers who are eager to have their employees’ full attention.
- Students in grades 7th through 12th do not require child care but would benefit from some in-person instruction. This could be accomplished through one of the “hybrid” instruction models, or by providing full-time distance learning and encouraging students to come to school to do their distance learning on specified days.
Now is not the time for APS and the county to continue to operate in silos with regards to the reopening of schools. It’s time to think outside the box. Now more than ever, we need our school and county leadership to forge an alliance with each other, and with community-based organizations and businesses to support our workforce and our schools with child care needs. Other districts have done this. For example, The Silicon Valley Community Foundation, in partnership with the San Mateo County and Santa Clara County Offices of Education, established the COVID-19 Education Partnership to expand the local capacity of school districts to address the extraordinary educational and mental health needs of students. We saw APS and the county come together to address food insecurity with the Coalition for a Hunger-Free Arlington. We are one of the richest counties in the United States. We have 13 community centers, a plethora of churches, community organizations, and major corporations like Amazon, Nestle, Boeing, just to name a few. We can be innovative to meet the needs of our residents with regards to providing child care so parents can return to work as students continue distance learning.