I’ve watched anxiously as Pennsylvania and New York City schools announced the end of the in-classroom instruction for the school year. In the case of New York those orders will pulled back by the Governor. Here in New Jersey I was happy to see a wait and see approach giving us time to understand where we are.
As a parent this is nerve wracking, as a local elected concerned about safety, sanity and the economy it is terrifying. And I know for many the uncertainty is one of the hardest parts – but the best public policy is nuanced and fact based and to do that right takes time and patience. Everyone is taking social distancing, shelter in place and covid isolation one day at a time and when it comes to determining when it’s safe to go back to school I have to urge a similar take for several reasons.
First, let me remind everyone that it’s been about a month and that the New Jersey school year ends at the end of June for most schools – which means that we have another two months to go, there is time to decide and there should be no rush to close schools until we get to June.
As a mom of an elementary school student ready to move up and leave the only school she’s ever known I know how important that transition is, I know how important a moment to say goodbye is, to reacquaint with friends before she heads to a school four times as big. The same can be said of those students heading to high school and to college. My kindergartener similarly should get to see again that school can be a safe space for her to learn before we start back up in September. It would be great if they could head back June 1th (unlikely), but a week or a few days would give them, their classmates and teachers the closure they need on this school year.
But as a local leader I have larger concerns too – if schools are closed for the rest of the year now it sends a message that social distancing must continue through the summer, or at the very least until July 4th. Now, this may end up being the case but there is so much that we don’t know that making that call now would impact. If it’s not safe for school in June then many camps will likely follow suit, if camps are closed there will be no child care for a large portion of the workforce.
Without adequate childcare due to Covid then you have two large problems – first how do you provide family leave for large portions of the workforce through Labor Day? Second, how do you bring back an economy when large portions of it have to stay home to care for their children who have no place to go. And third for many who won’t be able to work due to lack of child care how do we address the housing and nutrition crisis that come from not being able to work for six months – most families don’t have $1000 in emergency spending much less six months’ worth of savings to pay bills and buy groceries.
These real-life kitchen table issues are the what residents are talking about and worrying about. They worry in equal parts about opening up too early and risking the health of themselves, family and friends and about opening too late – creating deep social, emotional and mental scars on their children, unrecoverable educational loss and crippling household finances.
I worry that ripple effects that quick decisions have on the lives of residents aren’t always truly understood. I worry more about it when across the country, I see rooms full of men making these decisions, men who rarely had to balance work and daycare, who never went home to an unemployment check and men who haven’t had to make family dinner for three picky eaters from whatever was left in the fridge. To me so much of what we’ve seen in the last few months just reinforces why we need more diverse voices in politics and why we need more moms as leaders.
I’m not advocating for opening early, I’m advocating for taking slow measured steps with interim deadlines before closing things for months at a time. I want to be clear- if the science requires it, we have to find ways to make a prolonged social distancing doable then we should. But if we look at other countries that are starting back up- a six-month delay seems outside the norm. If we believe that by June 15th we should be returning to workplaces, then we should be returning kids to schools’ sans the hugs and probably rocking some cool masks, but let’s be honest after months of parents making them keep at least 6 feet between them and anyone that won’t be abnormal. Let them have delayed and socially distant version of the usual rituals - their graduations and school concerts. Find new ways to celebrate them, use technology to let parents, families and friends see them. But let them see their friends and say good bye if it’s safe to do so.
And if it’s not possible then figure out how we can survive together until the Fall but let’s be sure that’s what we are really looking at before we start down the path. In an ideal world we would be able to test all the school families before they returned, quarantining those who had positive results, shrinking the risk of exposure with each round of testing – starting with front line workers, then school families and then the broader public. That’s in an ideal world – we know it’s less than an ideal world but let’s take this one day at a time – don’t make decisions about what the world needs to look like a month ahead, or two months ahead. As we seek to get back to a new normal we can’t rush it and likewise we can’t rush decisions for the sake of making decisions.
Cathleen Lewis is a former Mayor, current Lawrence Councilmember, a transportation and sustainability advocate, and mom of 2 girls. As a young woman elected to office and as a woman often working in male dominated industries, Cathleen has lent her voice to a variety of efforts to encourage woman to be active in public service and to take on leadership roles in all aspects of life.
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