“Enjoy your summer!” teachers say when the school bells ring a final time and children race home to their families to begin summer. But summer has been far from enjoyable for U.S. families who carry the weight of making back-to-school plans amid an uncertain COVID-19 landscape.
Yes, the warm weather has sent folks outside – many have enjoyed beach and pool visits, more interactions with family and friends, and occasional barbeques – but working parents are still haunted by looming questions: How will my children resume school in the fall? Will they go back to the classroom, learn remotely or do both? How will we manage the added responsibilities that come with these decisions? And what impact does this all have on our ability to work? These decisions also have significant impact for the broader economy, both traditional businesses and emerging concerns that are finding opportunity in the ‘new normal.’
Since the close of the 2019-2020 school year, Americans have turned their attention to plans for school reopening. According to Google Trends data, Google users searched the terms “Covid school” and “Covid kids” with increasing popularity from June through mid-July. Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms provide forums for varying opinions, including seemingly counterintuitive views such as plans for on-site schooling in highly infected areas and virtual learning in regions with low local case and mortality rates.
The information is voluminous and it’s not easy to discern fact from fiction. Even news reports from reliable outlets present a wide range of views on student safety in schools.
Working parents remain conflicted
Many parents have been working through childcare challenges since March and are worn out by work-from-home schedules. In most scenarios, WFH options have improved for employees, but parents are understandably drained by added childcare responsibilities. Many cannot afford daycare or live in parts of the country where daycare facilities remain shuttered. The thought of carrying on these duties through early 2021 and potentially beyond, is frightening.
One midsize U.S. business that made known to RSM its work from home (WFH) policies recently surveyed its senior executives on the overall effectiveness of remote work. On April 20, about one month after the declaration of the global pandemic, 83% of its senior-most executives rated its WFH experience as completely effective or effective, compared to only 73% on June 15. What’s interesting about this data set is that despite better accommodations made for WFH, employee sentiment still declined, proving that many workers are growing increasingly fatigued by a remote work environment that blurs the boundaries between work and personal life.
For some parents, summer marks a continuation of off-site activities for their kids. Depending on their budgets, location, and the related COVID caseload in their area, they may have the choice to send their children to summer camp or summer school. Despite these options, parents may be exercising an abundance of caution, adding unexpected childcare to work responsibilities. The “go, no go” decision is likely influenced by the age of their children and whether they can safely follow the CDC’s guidelines for back-to-school. Kids five years and younger are seen as less likely to adhere to guidelines like wearing masks, washing their hands regularly, and avoiding crowded areas.
Economic effects on the real economy
Since the novel coronavirus outbreak was first declared a global pandemic in March, it has spread to over 200 countries and all U.S. states. RSM Chief Economist Joe Brusuelas estimates the virus could trim global economic growth by 6.5% by the end of 2020, with only a partial recovery in 2021.The economic fallout from the pandemic has resulted in levels of unemployment not experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Economic conditions remain bleak and the continued spread of the coronavirus is threatening the U.S. recovery, as lengthier delays will follow any further transmission. Consumer sentiment in July was delicate, measuring 73.2 on the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index, the worst reading since December 2012.
Workers who cannot manage both their jobs and childcare are left with some unpleasant choices. The decision to keep children home from school comes with the cost of reduced job productivity and the potential loss of earnings. Sending kids back to school not only risks their children’s and family’s health, but also carries the risk of extended time away from work if their kids or other family members do become infected. Some working parents may be pushed out of the labor force, forced to reduce their hours or denied professional advancements.
The tricky balance of managing additional childcare responsibilities without losing income – or, worse, a job – is a real economic issue facing millions of U.S. caregivers who work. What we’re sure to see – regardless of what families decide about their back-to-school plans – is continued demand for in-home care, remote learning tools and gig jobs.
Fueling a cottage industry
As the controversy continues, clear-cut winners are emerging in the educational space, some of which underscore that we live in a society of haves and have-nots. For example, families in upper-income neighborhoods are considering so-called at-home micro-schooling at $650 per week, an option not feasible for most Americans.
Micro-schooling is the reinvention of the one-room school house, with class size typically 15 students or fewer, and ages and levels mixed. Proponents of micro-schooling rave about the individual autonomy and self-determination that come from using digital platforms and having supportive teachers facilitate study and discovery. Even before COVID-19, micro-schools gained traction among families dissatisfied with the quality of public school options.
Another learning approach, micro-learning (not to be confused with micro-schooling), is likely to gain traction during the pandemic. It relies on relatively small learning units and short-term learning activities that allow children to acquire skills in a short period of time through small doses of content. Its usefulness lies in the fact that children can access segments of knowledge whenever they need it. Its flexibility is made possible by new technologies that are fitting for today’s digital age.
The inequity of choice
Online education is a difficult adjustment for everyone involved, but it’s a lot more difficult for some families than others. About 17% of students nationwide lack a computer at home, according to a 2019 analysis by the Associated Press. Low-income families and families of color are especially likely to be without online resources.
Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put some members of racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, and these groups often live in urban neighborhoods struggling with disparities in education, and disproportionately negative health outcomes from the outbreak.
Outdoor learning is one idea gaining steam and some American schools are considering its viability. Urban schools with higher student density ratios would benefit most from outdoor setting, but the option is limited by space constraints and weather.
We also have reviewed samples of local school communications for private schools that avow that any tuition deposits made in advance of school will not be refunded in the event of a statewide school closure mandate, adding another financial element for some families to consider.
Educators have more leverage than we think
Let’s not forget teachers. Teachers face far greater health risks than do students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average age of teachers in the United States is 42; 31% are age 50 or older. In some hotspot states like California, this is especially concerning; 36% of California’s teachers are 50 or older. If schools reopen, staffing could become a significant issue if educators take unpaid leave, accelerate voluntary retirement, or seek alternative employment such as virtual tutoring.
Women educators appear especially vulnerable, given their propensity to care for children more often than men. Today, over 76% of U.S. educators are women, and women are 61% more likely to care for children than men in single-income households, and 47% more likely than men in dual-income households, according to the NCES.
Vulnerable teacher populations are exerting significant influence over back-to-school plans. On July 20, Miami educators filed suit against their governor, mayor and department of education to stop what they describe as “reckless and unsafe” reopening of their public schools as coronavirus infections surge statewide.
According to the EdWeek Research Center, 20% of teachers are either very likely or somewhat likely to leave the classroom due to COVID-19, up from only 9% before the pandemic. So as we sit here in late July, just a month away from a possible school reopening, we realize that it’s the teachers who may tip the scale on the decision by districts on whether to physically reopen their schools.
The new normal of life at school
Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the back-to-school debate. Every school district will need to undertake a process that involves families, administrators, experts and community leaders in the difficult task of reimagining what schools like look like come fall.
Regular fever checks, staggered schedules, and limited sports, music and cultural enrichment programs will make for a restrictive environment that has many questioning whether the socially restricted new in-school experience is worth the risk.
My own children’s grade school in a Connecticut suburb offers a snapshot of the profound adjustments ahead for students and teachers. “Once the children are in the building, they will wash their hands after going to the bathroom, before and after snack and lunch, before and after going to the playground and before dismissal … The children and staff will remain with their cohort the entire day and any aide will remain in the room. Each class with have their own playground, which will be rotated every day. The school will not provide any food this year.”
State-level reports offer the best publicly available data on child COVID-19 cases. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association are collaborating to collect and share all publicly available data from states on COVID-19 cases affecting children. We recommend that all our clients to continue to follow the data in making judgments, as it often changes furiously. In the New York tristate area, for instance, a region that had widespread virus cases early in the pandemic, caseloads are down, with recently less than 3% affecting children; compare that to Alabama, which reports about 16% of infections in children.
Employers must act to support their staff
Employers will play a big role in supporting families during the back-to-school debate, and after. The care that organizations show employees today could strengthen the employer-employee relationship, which has long-term impacts. If done right, the employee will feel understood, and supported, which will drive their engagement and therefore higher productivity for years to come. Any lapses in trust between the employer and employee could have the opposite effect.
There are several policies that middle market companies could take to support its working families during these time, which include:
- Recognizing and supporting working families in their roles
- Providing access to quality health care, including virtual healthcare
- Promoting supportive workplace policies that help families mange caregiving responsibilities
- Expanding access to paid family and medical leave
- Adding and/or promoting employee benefits around extended care features
- Adding flexible work options
For more on the back-to-school economy:
- Education technology will be crucial this school year.
- Student housing, once a beacon of stability, is now vulnerable.
For more information on how the coronavirus is affecting midsize businesses, please visit the RSM Coronavirus Resource Center.