Last Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a speech for the Democratic National Convention. Warren’s five-minute speech, which was filmed from the Early Childhood and Education Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, began with her discussing the difficulties families are experiencing without childcare: “Childcare was already hard to find before the pandemic and now parents are stuck. No idea when schools can safely reopen and even fewer childcare options.” Warren went on to talk about Biden’s policy proposals for childcare and her dream to be a teacher since childhood. At first glance, this was a rousing and compelling political speech. Warren doing what she does best: laying out how it has all gone so wrong and how Biden could make it right. But what Warren got really wrong may not have been obvious to anyone who isn’t a teacher, so I’ll spell it out: public school is not a childcare provider.
In her speech, Warren went back and forth discussing both school and childcare as if the two are interchangeable: they are not. Even the location from which Warren filmed her speech was misleading, as the Early Childhood and Education Center is not a daycare, it’s a preschool and kindergarten. Teachers are employed to teach your children, not babysit them. This is not meant to diminish the work that actual childcare providers perform, but to make an important and necessary distinction between the two professions.
Why is it so important to make this distinction? Ask any teacher and they will tell you, even before the pandemic they were viewed as glorified babysitters, albeit underpaid ones. That mindset has always been problematic, but now it’s actively endangering teachers. When public schools are viewed as childcare providers, teachers are put into life-threatening situations so that they can perform this “service.” Like being forced to teach in-person classes against the backdrop of a raging pandemic, thereby enabling politicians to pretend that the pandemic is over and everything has returned to “normal.”
Before schools (recklessly) opened their doors for the 2020–2021 school year, officials pushing to reopen schools had the advantage of uncertainty: “Well, we don’t not know that schools are dangerous!” It’s been a few weeks and now we can unequivocally say that COVID-19 spreads in schools. Teachers do not have adequate disinfecting supplies or PPE. Schools were not built nor equipped to incorporate social distancing. Exposed individuals have no guarantee of being tested or properly quarantined. School faculty and students will get sick with COVID-19. Many already have; it’s just a question of when.
Yet, schools are opening anyway. Why? Remote learning is an option, not without its drawbacks, but one that at least ensures the safety of school faculty and students. Why risk their lives? Well, that’s what happens when public school is viewed as nothing more than a childcare provider. Remote learning can be done from home, remote babysitting can’t.
I don’t intend to diminish the struggles that parents with essential jobs have in finding adequate childcare. I know it’s difficult and in many cases impossible. It would be easy to blame this on schools being closed, the president already has, but it would also be inaccurate. The federal government could be providing consistent, monetary subsidization for childcare. Sorry Mnuchin, that one-time $1,200 payment some families received wasn’t quite adequate.
For example, families with essential workers could receive a bi-weekly or monthly stipend to pay family members, friends, or neighbors to watch their children during their working hours. Expecting people to provide free childcare places an undue burden on the childcare provider. Republicans would, of course, balk at this idea and call it an impossible, unaffordable, liberal dream. Don’t buy it. The GOP managed to find billions of dollars to dole out to rich corporations, they could easily afford to pay essential workers for childcare. I realize that this is not going to happen. Nevertheless, the government failing to do its job is not sufficient reason to endanger the lives of school faculty and students.
On the other hand, there’s the issue of parents who are finding it difficult to work from home and manage their children’s remote learning. The argument goes something like this: parents can’t adequately perform their jobs and help their children with distance learning. The burden is primarily falling onto mothers, not fathers. As a result, women are falling behind in their careers or dropping out of the workforce entirely. In July, The Washington Post ran an article entitled, “Coronavirus Child-Care Crisis Will Set Women Back a Generation.”
Again, it would be easy to blame this on school being closed. (The American Academy of Pediatrics certainly did when they were pushing schools to reopen, in spite of the serious health risks.) However, the truth is that the “…home is one of the only areas where feminists haven’t been able to make broad progress on.” While women have made substantial gains in the paid workforce, at home men are still not doing their fair share. On the contrary, there has been a serious regression:
A new survey from Gallup [conducted in January 2020] not only shows that women continue to do the vast majority of domestic work and childcare, but that younger married couples were just as likely as their older counterparts to have an unequal division of labor at home…Research by the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families showed that while 83% of men in 1994 rejected the idea that the best family dynamic was one where the man worked and the woman stayed at home, that number had fallen to 55% by 2014.
Clearly, the unequal division of domestic labor was a systemic problem long before the pandemic hit. Yet, somehow, the fact that men are not contributing at home is seen as a result of the schools being closed, rather than an exacerbation of preexisting gender roles. Like so many problems in American society, the pandemic (and closed schools) did not create this unequal division of labor in the home, it shone a light on it. One that’s becoming impossible to ignore.
Placing the onus for this onto teachers, instead of lackadaisical male partners, is a failure to address the real problem. Teachers shouldn’t have to risk their lives because men won’t perform domestic labor. This could be an opportunity for a radical reckoning within the home: a chance to create a more equitable division of labor, which would be much more beneficial for women in the long-term. Although, it will never happen if we take the easy way out and accuse teachers who want to continue remote learning of stalling women’s careers.
Blaming teachers for systemic societal failures isn’t just lazy and inaccurate, it’s also deeply misogynistic. Teaching is an overwhelmingly female-dominated profession in the United States: 77% of American teachers are women. Many of these teachers also have children of their own. Do you think it’s lost on them how difficult it can be to work from home with children? They get it! But they’ve also told us that sending children to school for in-person instruction is much too dangerous. These predictions have, unfortunately, proven to be correct.
Will we ever listen to teachers? What is it going to take? How many teachers have to be infected with COVID-19 before we start viewing teachers as valuable educators as opposed to free childcare providers? In many cities throughout the country, parents were given an option as to whether or not they would send their children to school for in-person instruction. Teachers were not given this choice. Parents having a “choice” is entirely dependent on teachers not having one. Therein lies the problem.
Teachers are the backbone of American society not because they keep your children occupied for eight hours of the day, ten months of the year, but because they work tirelessly to educate their students. Remote learning is not some kind of extended vacation for teachers: their jobs aren’t any easier because they are working from home. In fact, they’re harder, but the alternative is far too dangerous. The government failed to control the pandemic and therefore it is not safe to open schools. As a society, we need to accept this reality, right now. Teachers deserve our utmost respect and admiration, not a death sentence.