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Without National Strategy For School Reopenings, Parents Face Uncertainty


What are parents supposed to do as the start of school approaches? Many schools would typically reopen in August, but the pandemic leaves some still unsure what to do. Schools face the further complication of teachers who want to be sure they're safe. And for parents, the bottom line is, how can they keep their kids safe? And what can they just do with their kids?

NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz is following this story. Hey. Good morning.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: People are talking about teachers' strikes. What would that be about?

KAMENETZ: So yesterday, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers gave a virtual keynote. And she said that they are authorizing strikes on the local level if schools don't get what they need to open in person safely. Let's listen.


RANDI WEINGARTEN: If the authorities don't protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table.

KAMENETZ: And so by safety and health, she means, Steve, following the union's own road map for reopening schools. For example, the AFT wants to see a positive test rate below 5% in a community. And right now, Steve, that would leave out eight of the 10 largest school districts in the country.

INSKEEP: Wow. OK. So this is really interesting because there's not a national strategy for schools, obviously. There are guidelines that have been fought over and that the president has clouded. Different school districts are doing different things. But it sounds like there is a national strategy on the part of teachers. Does this mean that any district that opens up without meeting those guidelines is risking a strike?

KAMENETZ: Well, as you mentioned, I mean, local conditions and also local union leadership relationships are going to vary. But if the membership in a particular place is willing to do it, what this says is that the leadership has authorized it. And you know, this is happening as, on the other hand, the Senate Republicans are right now bringing to the table a coronavirus relief package that is really leaning on schools to reopen in person. Out of $70 billion that has been proposed in aid to K-12 schools that they desperately need to reopen, two-thirds is currently earmarked to go only to schools that plan to open their doors in person for at least some classes this fall.

INSKEEP: Wow. What does that mean for parents?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, Steve, millions of us rely on public schools for approximately 30 hours a week of free child care aside from education and socialization and all the other benefits schools provide. In 2019, you know, 3 out of 4 moms of school-age children were employed. Nine out of 10 dads were working, as well.

INSKEEP: OK. And some of those people have lost their jobs, but as many as possible want to keep working or have to keep working. So what options do they have?

KAMENETZ: Well, as you mentioned, you know, some are out of work through no choice of their own. Some are choosing to step back to take care of their kids. And that has a lot of consequences, some are saying, especially for women's careers.

Anecdotally, I've heard many are not relying on grandparents as much for care because of fears about the virus. And so I decided to take a look at what is really the next most affordable option out there besides family care, and those are in-home day care, is where someone takes in a few children. And right now, they take care of about 7 million children across the country. And you know, these are small neighborhood businesses, some of which are licensed. And some are so small that they're exempt. And interestingly, across the country, almost all of these providers are women, and almost half are women of color. And experts who look at this stuff told me that in-home day cares are a model that could potentially scale up to meet this new demand for care for school-age children if we had the right support.

INSKEEP: Scale up - so it already exists - the idea is to do a lot more of it. Are providers trying to do that?

KAMENETZ: Yes. I talked to Ani Gharibian. She runs Busy Bee Childcare in Los Angeles.

ANI GHARIBIAN: The funnest thing is watching the little ones grow, watching them develop and become people right in front of your eyes.

KAMENETZ: Gharibian chose her home because she thought it would make for a good day care.

GHARIBIAN: I have a very large backyard - I call it our little park - where we have slides and swings and a bunch of little houses and playsets for the kids to enjoy. And most of the house - I would say about 80% of the house - is dedicated to the day care. I just have one small room that belongs to me and my kids.

KAMENETZ: Gharibian's business has struggled and even closed down for about a month-and-a-half while the city was sheltering in place. But now she's back up and running, and she's even making space for school-age children who will need all-day care because the local public schools are starting the year remotely.

GHARIBIAN: I was actually - right before you called, I was looking into desks and posters and all that stuff that I'm going to get to put together the classroom for the kids.

KAMENETZ: Those kids, right now a group of pre-K and kindergarten students, will be following their school's remote learning plans with Gharibian's help. They'll share meals and playtime with the younger kids, all at a cost of about $300 a week for up to 11 hours a day of care.

NATALIE RENEW: Home-based providers have disproportionately continued to serve essential workers during the pandemic, but they're also really struggling.

KAMENETZ: Natalie Renew directs Home Grown, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of in-home child care. She says these providers operate on razor-thin margins at the best of times. Many live at the poverty line.

RENEW: And also, uniquely, they work in the place that they live. So you know, destabilizing their business also destabilizes their housing.

KAMENETZ: Advocacy groups are pushing for Congress to bail out child care providers in the next coronavirus aid package. Republicans have proposed $15 billion, but Renew says they're going to need much more.

RENEW: That's really sort of looking over the edge of a cliff. Many, many providers are already starting to close.

KAMENETZ: Health and Safety is another key concern for in-home providers. Renew says there isn't a lot of good evidence yet on just how safe these settings might be. But there are hopes that...

RENEW: Given the small group size in home-based child care, that the threat of transmission may be lower there....

KAMENETZ: Gharibian serves many children of essential workers. She says it's impossible to socially distance from infants or get toddlers to wear masks all day. She and her employees may be a little nervous. But she says...

GHARIBIAN: People are desperate for income at the moment. So even if they do have some reservation, priorities take over.

INSKEEP: OK. So given all that, Anya Kamenetz, is this a hopeful story?

KAMENETZ: You know, on the one hand, Steve, I am so impressed that there are all these women out there who are really ready and willing to take up the challenge and provide quality learning and socialization to all the kids that need it. On the other hand, it's so troubling that they're being asked to work on such a shoestring, that they're fearing for their health and that without subsidies, these day cares might have to close even as the need is growing.

INSKEEP: NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz. Thank you very much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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