Listen: Why the World Can’t Reopen If Schools Can’t

James Hamblin: Oh man, so they’re going to close the schools right away.

Lewis: In a way, I think that’s almost worse for working parents, because if you know that school’s off, then you have to make child-care arrangements full time. That’s really hard to do, but you can kind of budget for it. But at the moment, it’s, “Yeah, we’re going back to school.” Except, at any moment, that might be taken away.

Wells: There are the effects on kids themselves: the lost education, the lost socialization, and everything else. But can you talk a little bit about the second order effects on everybody else?

Lewis: Yeah, I think this is kind of loon policy making that has happened in the U.S., and Rachel Donadio has written about it in France, where they’ve gone, Hooray, it’s time to reopen the economy. And that’s great, but “What am I supposed to do with my kids?” is what a huge number of working parents have asked. There hasn’t been an acknowledgment that schools, too, are child care. They are what allows workers to get to work just as much as having a functioning transport system does. I think it’s been really tough on parents, particularly of really young children, for the last couple of months, and it doesn’t look like that situation is getting any better.

Wells: It seems relatively obvious that not having schools open and also having jobs open is not a tenable situation. Why isn’t [opening up schools] part of the plan?

Lewis: One of things I always think when I write about feminism is the fact that tradition makes you think that things are natural and immutable when they’re actually the result of political choices that people have made. I think our current frame is a legacy of a very 1950s model where the man is the breadwinner and then the wife’s job is sort of secondary, if she’s got one at all. That’s not the reality for the vast majority of people now.

Wells: And all of that is just completely compounded in a pandemic.

Lewis: Right. People rely on families and friends and informal networks for child care, and lockdown just completely took that away. Never mind losing your six hours a day of formal nursery care; you also couldn’t get your mum to come and pick the kids up so that you could go to an important meeting.

Hamblin: These are problems that have been with us for decades. Now we have a crisis on top of this, and we need solutions now. So what should we do?

Lewis: I know that, to American ears, this is almost like calling for full communism now, but it should be the state’s responsibility to provide affordable child care and to pay for maternity and paternity leave. America has no federally mandated maternity leave, and some people are cobbling together bits of holiday allowance, right? And pumping breast milk in the toilets at work six weeks after their baby’s born. There’s a social good to children being happy and healthy and to parents being not stressed. I think that’s really tough for people to get their heads around, initially. Occasionally, I have a little spark of God, I must be paying a lot of tax money for schools that I’m not using. But then I remember that all those kids are going to grow up and do things, brilliant things, hopefully, that will benefit my life forever.

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