Have I ever felt this angry or trapped in my entire life? Certainly—let me cut you off right there at the pass—the world has seen greater cruelties and outrages. “Broken childcare infrastructure” barely makes the list of world-historical tragedies.
And yet for sheer absurdity, for the unbelievable stupidness of this problem, for our steadfast refusal to acknowledge the giant fucking impossible disaster hanging over all of our heads—for that, this year should win some kind of award.
Let me back up. California’s public schools are all currently online, as they should be. I have a seven-year-old daughter who’s in Zoom school. I also have a six-month-old baby. I also have a full-time job, as does my husband.
When schools announced they’d be all-online this fall, I felt a mixture of disappointment and relief: disappointment, because online school is so inadequate for kids, but relief because keeping kids home helps ensure that everyone is safe. It was the right call. I shuddered when I thought about the tantrum-spattered disaster that had been Zoom school in the spring of 2020, but this time we had the space to plan. We had time to figure this out. It seemed obvious that we wouldn’t be asked to repeat the mess of spring 2020.
Except no one acted. I tried, God help me—I tried to convince the school district that beginning the school year without any provision for childcare was insane, would be a disaster for everyone, but especially for lower-income families. The district needed to exercise creativity in order to allow students to be supervised in small, safe groups. I did everything I could think of to get them to see this, even though I was at the time trying to care for two small children, and work, and deal with the emotional fallout of all of this for my family and me.
The school district did nothing about care for kids during school. Nothing. It was shocking. One board member told me not to worry, that we’d be going hybrid as early as September and at that point kids would have care. That seemed unlikely, but I wondered at the time if she knew something I didn’t know. She didn’t. LA County now tells us it will be at least November before kids step foot on campus.
It was a surreal, out-of-body experience to watch district administrators steadfastly ignore the enormously pressing question of childcare in all of their communication and official meetings. I watched questions go unanswered in the chat box that ran alongside our “listen and learns.” What was an essential worker, who must work outside the home, supposed to do? What about the rest of us? Did the district have any suggestions? These questions never got answered; instead we heard lots about online safety and the distribution of ChromeBooks.
Hey, they were busy! They sure were! They were doing all kinds of things to get everyone prepped for online learning: making arrangements with edtech companies, training teachers on best practices, sending out breezy newsletters about how we’re all in this together. I tried to tell them, in every way I knew how, that
NONE OF THAT WORK MATTERS IF KIDS DON’T HAVE CARE.
None of it. Teachers can offer the most exquisitely prepared and finely tuned lessons via Zoom, and they are utterly useless if parents aren’t available to get students online and supervised. But I was screaming into a void. I never got a response.
The PTA, meanwhile, earnestly filled backpacks with school supplies for lower-income kids, busily ignoring the fact that these same kids are likely to languish without care or supervision.
The start of the school year crept closer as my incredulity grew. Surely they couldn’t expect us to repeat what happened in the spring. Surely not. Surely everyone recognized that was an unmitigated disaster. But as the days went by, schedules got emailed out, teachers got assigned, and the possibility hardened into fact: We were going to be expected to help our children with school, full-time, while also working, full-time. The glaring impossibility of this, the fact that it violates the laws of physics, was never acknowledged, which made me feel as though I had privately and quietly gone insane.
For its part, my workplace, which had in the summer held out the possibility of childcare and other help, grew increasingly quiet. Administrators who had promised to find solutions stopped answering emails. The resource we’re left with is a page of links to expensive private tutoring companies and a pod-matching initiative called Bruin Bubbles.
The wasted opportunities, the refusal to exercise creativity, just astound me. The district could have used a hub-and-spoke model, as other districts have, to distribute small groups of students around my town’s many unused public buildings. The college students home from school could have been hired to provide care. The money parents are apparently spending on private tutors could have been pooled to provide options for everyone. Instead, it’s every parent for themselves in a claws-out scramble for resources.
In the school Facebook group, any complaint is punished with frowny faces and exhortations to think positive. “We’ve got a pretty good system going on!” the PTA president retorted when I made a very mild joke about the difficulty of the school year. What is her system, I wonder? Is she, too, a pre-tenure college professor with a full courseload, a tenure dossier, and a six-month-old baby? If the ads on my social media feeds are any indication, her “system” might involve the hiring of one of an eye-popping array of private services, from boutique childcare to custom pod-matching services to art and music instruction to help with pods’ tax implications. Though I am far from rich, I am a relatively well-resourced person, with a white-collar job, and I cannot afford these services. What in God’s name are lower-income parents supposed to do? The PTA president posted a GIF of an upside-down sloth, captioned “hang in there!” I left the group before I said something I regretted.
The school year has kicked into gear, and conditions are worse than I could have imagined. My daughter was an incredibly good sport about this situation for a good five months, but now that she’s gone six months without any social interaction, the strain of all of this is starting to show. She is quicker to anger and tears than she ever has been, convinced that she alone is unable to keep up with the Spanish-language instruction at her immersion school. She has regressed in countless, heartbreaking ways. We’ve frequently had to cut Zoom school short because her hysteria made it impossible to continue.
This upsets the school administrators, who have introduced strict policies about attendance and (somehow, unbelievably) attention. My daughter’s asynchronous work, meanwhile, requires that we ease her into each assignment, because her unhappiness is so profound that she tips easily into desperate tears. My silly, mischievous, confident, brilliant daughter, who has since she was a baby woken up giggling. The last year of her little-girlhood is being sacrificed to this mess, and she’ll never get it back. We’re now spending a small fortune of counseling to try to undo some of the damage these last months have done.
In response, the school promotes “independence” for our children. But I refuse to believe that it’s abnormal or worthy of a punishment for a seven-year-old to require help on an assignment. This seems eminently normal and reasonable to me. It’s not her fault that the world around her has collapsed into chaos.
My anger about all of this is intense, threatening to overwhelm me. I’m surprised sparks aren’t flying off my body. The difficulty of the situation is one thing; the refusal to even acknowledge the impossibility of what we’re doing is what really pushes me to fury. What once seemed like common sense—that a parent could not teach a child full-time while also working full-time—somehow no longer obtains. This new state of affairs, which self-evidently violates the laws of physics, is treated as a fait accompli, just an obstacle to be met with good humor and grace. But it’s not. It didn’t have to be this way, and parents’ insistence on being good sports about this simply prevents others of us from claiming legitimacy for our experiences. We can’t build any kind of collective action or solidarity when even small complaints are met with righteous indignation.
Why have we allowed this to happen? Why are we not in the streets? Why has no left organization capitalized on parents’ rage, channeling it into action? Do we think we deserve to be shit on like this, to be run over and left for dead? I don’t think I do, and I especially don’t think my daughter does.
And yet this is somehow, unbelievably, our reality. And as my anger mounts and I grow increasingly dangerous to be around, I’ve realized that I need to do something I’ve steadfastly avoided since this started: to set my concern for other people aside in order to keep my own family afloat. My family is at risk of drowning, and it’s time for me to do everything I can in order to keep us from going under. If it means we drain our savings, then so be it. If it’s not fair, I can’t think about it. My rage, however justified, is not helpful to me right now, and so with this last salvo, I’m tabling it, perhaps to return to when we’re not in a five-alarm emergency.