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When it comes to getting kids back to school, we're asking all the wrong questions

Amid the Omicron surge, Reshma Saujani, founder of “The Marshall Plan for Moms,” says there’s too much of a focus on asking “Should we be sending our kids back to school?” Instead, we should be asking this.
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Students line up to have their temperature checked before entering P.S. 179 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on Sept. 29, 2020.Mark Lennihan / AP

As a parent, I’m used to answering the same question over and over. While writing this piece, my 2 year old has asked me for Goldfish no fewer than five times, and my 6 year old has put in his first of four nightly iPad requests.

And yet, I’m exhausted that us parents have been repeatedly asked the same question for the last two years, only louder during the most recent Omicron surge: “Should we be sending our kids back to school?”

I’m exhausted because to me (and to 80 percent of parents across the country), the answer is an obvious and resounding “yes.” Study after study has shown that school is not a major risk for infection; conversely, a raft of reports have sounded the alarm on online classes, showing how the last two years of disruptive learning have led to stunted academic, social, and emotional development, heightened anxiety and depression, and even increased suicide rates, especially for young girls.

But I’m mostly exhausted because that one question keeps us from asking a far bigger, far more important one: How can we finally make school work not only for kids—but for their parents, too?

Covid-19 only exposed the ways in which school has never been fully compatible with working parents’ schedules. Parent teacher conferences were held during the workday; hours of homework added stress without showing real benefits; and the last bell rang two hours before most parents were off work, leaving a critical gap in childcare.

Our federal policies didn’t help: The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t guarantee paid leave to working parents. Conveniently, we’re also the developed country with the least affordable childcare for low-income single parents.

Part of the reason for these antiquated policies is exactly that: they’re old. Our afternoon pickup time, for example, was not chosen for our children’s benefit—it was set to accommodate farmers back in the 1800s, decades before most married women even dreamt of having their own careers.

Of course, Covid-19 all but resurrected that reality. Once schools closed, moms weren’t just charged with navigating the 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. block, but becoming full time educators: it’s one of the many reasons why some 1.8 million women have yet to return to work, while nearly three out of every four women believe the pandemic has hurt their careers.

All the while, working parents are guided by Covid-related policies that don’t take schools into account at all.

Take our current Covid-19 protocols, which seem to value adults getting back to our lives, at the expense of kids building theirs. Adults must show proof of vaccination to go to work, to dinner, or pretty much anywhere—but for hundreds of unvaccinated kids to spend 6+ hours in the same building every single day? No problem.

Similarly, while the CDC shortened the recommended isolation period to five days for adults, children’s isolation period remains a full 10, leaving parents to wonder what kind of Mary Poppins character the government expects to magically appear for the other half of our kids’ isolation.

Reshma Saujani participates in an interview with Maria Bartiromo on "Maria Bartiromo's Wall Street" at Fox Business Network Studios on Feb. 11, 2019 in New York.Steven Ferdman / Getty Images file

So yes, we have to re-open schools—and keep them open. Widely available testing is a good start, as is a vaccine mandate: with such a mandate already in place in California, Los Angeles’s school district has yet to even enforce their mask mandate, and nearly 90 percent of students are now fully vaccinated, compared to 43.3 percent of New York City students. That’s millions of kids protected from the scariest symptoms of Covid-19 (to say nothing of the fact that we’ve already instated vaccine requirements in schools for much less).

But sending kids back to school is the floor, not the ceiling. Today, we have the opportunity to radically rethink the ways in which school and work can work together, to better serve our kids, and their parents.

School hours should be the first thing to change. They start too early for kids, and end too early for working parents. Shifting the day later would benefit both. In the meantime, let’s direct more public funds to afterschool programming to keep kids happy and busy without an added childcare cost. And please, for everyone’s sake, let’s do less homework.

With Covid-19 exacerbating food insecurity—nearly one out of every five families with kids reported food insecurity during the pandemic—we should provide a free, healthy lunch to every child. Not only is this a time saver for parents scrambling to pack lunch while Zooming into a conference call, but it also helps end school food stigma.

If anything in schools should go virtual, it should be parent-teacher conferences, not our children’s classes. In general, schools should better utilize streamlined technology to post class messages, check kids in and out, and otherwise communicate with parents, rather than relying on a patchwork of emails and Facebook groups.

And of course, Marshall Plan for Moms has among other things advocated for flexible working hours and paid leave, policies popular across political parties. Those structural reforms are the best ways to support parents and our kids in the long-term, rather than advance a system that harms both.

Moms: our kids have suffered too long, and while we aren’t as quick to express it, so have we. So, let’s use our collective power to end this miserable new normal and build a better status quo. As usual, the only people we can count on to do so are ourselves.

Reshma Saujani is the CEO of the Marshall Plan for Moms and the Founder of Girls Who Code. She is the author of the forthcoming book "Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (And Why It's Different Than You Think)."