A caring mother helping her daughter put on her face mask before school
FreshSplash/E+/Getty Images

This School Year Is Going To Suck For Working Parents

Parents need employers and policymakers to formulate flexible leave policies accordingly.

Well, that didn’t take long. Within days of the first school districts in the nation starting their academic years, the COVID quarantines hit. Arkansas’ Marion County had 168 students quarantined due to exposure, while two Mississippi high schools reverted to temporary virtual learning because of outbreaks. The Delta variant has exploded any sense that this school year will be normal, and employers need to start adjusting now to this evolved reality.

This is not an argument about the best ways for school districts to respond to Delta or how to properly calibrate the risk of the variant to children. The reality is that school districts are going to do what they are going to do, and if last school year is any guide, district decisions are going to vary widely — even among adjacent communities. Instead, we need employers and policymakers across the nation to grasp the predictably unpredictable nature of Delta.

At some point this year, exposures, if not full-blown outbreaks, are going to flip most parents’ lives upside down in the time it takes to hit “send” on a schoolwide email.

It is incumbent on businesses, then, to begin formulating flexible leave policies now. Perhaps a special bank of “dependent COVID leave” for this year for employees with children (or anyone with dependents). A child’s required isolation would be relatively easy to verify, after all. At the very least, a work from home option should be maintained in every job where that is feasible. Merely having these policies on the books is insufficient, though: To ward off implicit or explicit discrimination, all employees — and especially managers — should have training about why current conditions demand added contingencies for caregivers. It is truly a case of equity versus equality.

While the authorization of a vaccine for children younger than 12 will certainly help, it’s worth remembering that many parents — even those who are vaccinated — report wariness, and only a third of eligible teens have gotten the vaccine. It may be naive to assume we’ll see a tremendous uptake, although these leave policies could arguably be structured to incentivize vaccination.

Of course, trusting employers to simply do the right thing requires the same credulity as trusting the internet to treat Simone Biles with respect. The government needs to intervene. The special leave provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act have expired, although employer tax incentives continue until Sept. 30. Sept. 30 — not even past the first quarter of the school year — is also when many state leave mandates, like California’s, expire. These dates may have made sense prior to Delta’s rise, but the new wave should activate policymakers to extend the leave provisions through at least the end of the calendar year, ideally through next June. A few jurisdictions have gotten it right: For instance, Philadelphia indefinitely requires most employers to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick leave for COVID-related reasons, including caring for an isolating family member or child whose school has closed.

This school year may not be as existentially crushing as the last, but it will be anything but usual.

This wouldn’t be such a fraught moment for parents, it should be noted, if the nation had a robust paid leave policy to begin with. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, just 19% of American workers have access to paid family leave, while only half in the lowest quarter of wage earners even have access to paid sick leave. The underlying problem tracks back to the increasingly famous quip from sociologist Jessica Calarco: Other nations have social safety nets; the United States has women.

In the meantime, the consequences from inaction on emergency paid leave in the era of Delta are a charcuterie plate of awfulness. Without strong protections, both legally and within their company culture, many parents will feel pressure to send their child to school after an external exposure (say, hanging out with relatives who turn up positive). Some may even feel forced to hide a positive test result if the alternative is losing their job and home. Ensuring parents’ ability and security to keep their child home is an important layer of the “Swiss cheese” model of pandemic protection.

On the other hand, when the exposure comes from within the school building, there will be no sweeping it under the rug: The child will not be allowed back in the building until the quarantine period has ended. Absent a strong policy and an understanding boss, millions of parents may face reduced hours, reduced income, and all of the cascading negative consequences that come alongside for both families and the economy.

While the rest of the country may be ready to move on, moms and dads (let’s be real: moms) are left holding the unvaccinated bag.

Parents themselves also need to take matters into their own hands and make it known that while the rest of the country may be ready to move on, moms and dads (let’s be real: moms) are left holding the unvaccinated bag. This looks like banding together within companies to insist on an updated leave policy in light of Delta, and it looks like advocacy at the state and federal levels for better COVID leave mandates and permanent paid leave laws. It is perhaps appropriate that August marks the start of the Paid Leave for All Campaign’s nationwide bus tour.

This school year may not be (fingers crossed, knock on wood, turn around three times and spit) as existentially crushing as the last, but it will be anything but usual. While kids will again be flowing into school buildings, they will also not infrequently be bounced back home. Unless employers and policymakers adjust their expectations and their policies, parents are in for another year of pain — and this time, it will be more the fault of cold-hearted decision-makers than a mindless virus.