Working Parents Don’t Have to Panic Over Part-Time School
Pedestrians and schoolchildren wearing protective masks walk along a sidewalk in Hong Kong, China. (Photographer: Roy Liu/Bloomberg)

Working Parents Don’t Have to Panic Over Part-Time School

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In the last few weeks, a number of school districts have started to announce their reopening plans and, honestly, some parents have started to panic. Deb Perlman put it well in the New York Times: Some of these plans seem to imply you cannot have both a child and a job. In particular, a number of districts —including New York City — have announced plans to reduce class size by bringing kids to school in part-time cohorts. Say, two days a week. Or, only mornings. Or only two weeks a month.

We can rail against this as unfair, impractical, insane for parents. But after we are done yelling, the reality remains. If the adults in the household work, and kids are in school only two days a week, you need a solution. So, what can you do? Here are a few ideas. 

DIY. Obviously, many of us are already familiar with home-schooling this spring. I’m guessing some of us had more success than others. 

One thing to consider, though, is how well this approach worked for your child’s learning (and how much it took from you). Some parents I’ve spoken to tell me their kid was fine doing Zoom school all day. Others said getting their kids to do the work was like pulling teeth.

A second consideration is how DIY school will work with your job. This spring, I think most employers were understanding about the need to care for kids. This will be less true in the fall. 

The One Percent Solution. Let’s say money is no object, or at least a limited object. In that case, may I suggest a governess? 

Seriously, I strongly suspect that some parents will hire someone, either full or part time, to teach their child at home. I’m expecting a wave of tutoring start-ups featuring Ivy League undergrads on gap years from their now-online schools. I suspect we’ll also see retired teachers offer some tutoring services, although this is more complicated given that virus risk rises with age.

The reasons to hire a private tutor are clear. For one, your child will probably learn as much (or, honestly, more) than they would in school. We know one-on-one tutoring is a productive way to learn. This is also a solution that doesn’t involve the parents being around, another benefit for people who can’t work from home.

It’s also clear why you wouldn’t do this: It is very expensive. I’m viscerally uncomfortable with the inequality that this will exacerbate. But if you can afford it, it is probably the easiest option. 

Co-Op. Let’s imagine the kids are in school two days a week, leaving three days where they are supposed to study remotely. In the DIY option, every family is on their own to cover those three days. But create a parenting co-op with two other families, and you only have to each take one day. Or, better yet, get a group of six and you only cover one day every two weeks.  

What would this really look like? It depends a bit on kids’ ages. For a group of kindergarteners, I’m guessing that this would involve a small amount of remote “school” (or worksheets?) and then a lot of supervising kids playing. For older kids, say third or fourth grade, you’d likely be thinking more about supervising them in front of tablets as they interact with remote school.

This option has some downsides — you have to trust the other parents to be virus-safe and schedule-reliable. I’m guessing it would work best for older kids. And for public health reasons, you’d have to partner with families in the same cohort at school, not your kids’ preferred friends or the families in your neighborhood.

Babysitter Co-Op. A variation on the co-op plan, which draws a bit from the one-percenter solution, is to create a co-op supervised by someone who is not a parent. Hiring a tutor three days a week on your own is expensive. Doing it with six other families is … one-sixth as expensive. 

Market-Based Solutions. The need for child supervision is not going to be lost on the market.  At least, as an economist, I suspect not. Traditional after-school programs (YMCA, JCC, etc.) are likely to extend their offerings to cover open school days. I wouldn’t be surprised if some summer camps considered in-person offerings of this type. 

The advantage of these options is that they’re simple. A disadvantage is that they involve exposure to a larger number of other children and adults. If the goal of physically distanced school is to reduce class sizes, then everyone dispersing to different YMCA camps at the end of the day kind of ruins things. And these solutions may also be expensive, especially if you have multiple children. In the end, a babysitter may actually be more cost effective if you are a parent of many.  

Ideally, though, school systems would recognize that they have a role in helping parents manage all of this — even if it’s not feasible to have full-time, normal, in-person teaching. The solution could be as simple as moving classroom cohorts to the local YMCA branch at the end of the school day.  

Of course, for schools to do this requires resources.  Resources that they do not have, especially as many school systems need to spend money to create remote learning options.  We’ve seen a lot of federal pressure for schools to reopen, but such pressure must come with funding.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Emily Oster is a professor of economics at Brown University. She is the author of "Cribsheet" and "Expecting Better."

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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