Schools have become the leading edge of pandemic politics. As a new school year dawns, so too is the realization that much of the country is in no shape to reopen the schoolhouse gates. That means parents and families will continue to bear the costs of virus containment, and of our collective failure to get the virus under control sooner — costs imposed on their professional lives, their family structure, their social supports, and their children’s wellbeing.
Those costs imposed on families in the name of public health ought to be compensated, in the form monthly checks from the government.
Back in March when the virus first started ravaging cities like New York, closing schools proved to be one of the most consequential public health interventions. An abnormal spike of fevers is one of the leading indicators that a community has a COVID-19 outbreak. And after weeks of rising fevers, New York City recorded its first fever decline on March 16 — the day it closed its schools. Bars and restaurants were closed the next day, and fevers continued to decline. Other places saw similar improvements after taking these interventions.
When most of the country shuttered schools for the final months of the 2019–2020 school year, the implicit deal was that this period plus the summer vacation months would buy us enough time to get the virus under control by scaling up testing, contact tracing, and imposing strict social distancing measures. In the meantime, families were asked to help guide their children through the new remote learning environment.
Needless to say, we’ve burned through the time we bought, and the virus still rages. The country is seeing some of its highest rates of infection yet as hot spots shift to the South and West. Many major school districts have announced that they will remain closed for at least the first several months of the new school year, meaning more remote learning is in store for families and students.
Many fingers have been pointed at the impatience so many had with social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders, and the premature rush to reopen businesses. But that was greased in part by the failure of the federal government (and specifically, President Trump and congressional Republicans) to approve state and local relief legislation. The closure of businesses en masse to fight the pandemic meant that state and local revenues evaporated: sales taxes on drinks, restaurant meals, and other goods and services were no longer being paid because no one was having drinks or meals or otherwise engaging in much commercial consumption at all.
The simple math is that bars and restaurants generate sales tax revenue for local governments, while schools cost revenue. States and localities faced a brutal choice: Prioritizing creating an environment where schools might reopen would mean buckling down and keeping businesses closed. But that would starve governments of revenue and potentially lead to mass furloughs and layoffs, deepening the economic crisis.
With relief from Washington nowhere in sight, many local governments eventually relented and reopened restaurants and other businesses. That in turn caused COVID-19 cases to begin increasing again in places like the DC metro area.
The upshot is that states and cities were forced (by the absence of federal relief) to prioritize bars and restaurants over schools. But as Matt Yglesias recently explained, “the fiscal ‘saving’ from prioritizing restaurants over schools is just a way of (a) pushing uncompensated labor onto parents, and (b) compromising children’s long-term future.”
Another way to put it is that families have borne an acutely heavy burden of the public health and economic response to COVID-19. School closures were necessary to control the virus…so families had to take one for the team and manage school from home in the spring. Then bar and restaurant reopenings became necessary to manage the economic fallout from the virus…so families will have to take another one for the team and manage school from home in the fall.
It’s clear that families will continue to bear that burden into the coming school year. The best anyone is realistically hoping for between now and the end of the calendar year is a “hybrid” or “blended” reopening — basically a subset of kids going back to school for a few days each week in order to manage social distancing in school buildings. A school in Indiana already reported a positive case of COVID-19 within hours of reopening. Many others that cautiously attempt to reopen will inevitably wind up re-closing following student or staff infections.
Remote learning has imposed real costs on families. Parents on average spent about 13 hours a week helping their children figure out remote learning. Those families with the privilege of being able to work from home have had to juggle professional work with childcare work. Essential workers and others who cannot have had to either rearrange their work schedules or otherwise figure out full-time indefinite childcare support on the fly. And there are also the long-term developmental and educational losses that a B-version of K-12 schooling is inflicting upon their children, despite the best efforts of educators to invent effective remote teaching models overnight.
Families ought to be compensated for these costs imposed on them to stem virus outbreaks and spare our economy from total free-fall. Congress should provide family pandemic assistance in the form of a monthly check to families with children at some rate between $250–$500 per child per month for as long as the pandemic lasts.
In truth, even this sum of money isn’t enough to fully compensate parents. A $500 monthly benefit program amounts to less than $10 an hour for parents doing the average 13 hours per week of remote learning supervision. But at least it’s something — and it could be an immense help to some families for extra educational support or broadband Internet (which COVID-era remote learning has definitively proven ought to be a right for all like water or electricity). It would help pay for the meals many families now have to provide out of pocket in the absence of free school meal programs.
A program along these lines was passed by the House as part of the HEROES Act in May. That bill includes a provision that would adjust the existing Child Tax Credit to provide between $3,000-$3,600 per child paid out over the course of 12 months (i.e., $250–$300 per month). It closely resembled the American Family Act, a child benefit bill sponsored by Senators Michael Bennet and Sherrod Brown.
The HEROES Act, of course, has been blocked by Senate Republicans for the last two and a half months. And the CARES Act passed by Congress in March provided little in the way of targeted relief for families. Yes, it authorized one-time stimulus payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child. But as Yglesias points out, this structure perversely meant that “a DINK [double income, no kids] couple got more money than a single mom raising two children.”
For the potential second round of stimulus payments, the House’s HEROES Act would correct this imbalance by equalizing the money given to adults and children at $1,200 a piece. The Senate’s proposed HEALS Act, however, would keep the original lower payment of $500 per child, meaning again that childless families would gain more than families with children under the Republicans’ plan. (Page 7 of this explainer provides a side-by-side comparison.)
Either way, the severity of this crisis for families means that more than a one-off benefit is needed. The Senate Republicans’ bill pointedly left out anything like the HEROES Act’s child benefit. Democrats should insist that some version of family pandemic assistance to be included in any legislative deal. Perhaps instead of locking in a benefit for a full calendar year, Congress could tie it to the duration of the pandemic by having the benefit end with the national emergency. In theory, that could wind up costing less than a full year’s worth of refundable tax credit benefits. It would all depend on the length of the pandemic, functioning as a new automatic stabilizer.
To be clear, a child benefit program would do a lot of good even in non-pandemic times, and ought to be made permanent in the long term (as I’ve written before). Senators Bennet, Brown, and some congressional candidates have proposed ambitious plans that would do just that. Family pandemic assistance would seed such a program in American political and economic life in a moment of crisis. It would go a long way toward tilting our relief efforts toward families at a time when so many desperately need it.