The spring semester ended with my elementary school children waving to a computer, offering their goodbyes and “I miss yous” to faces on a screen. The present-tense-ness of the farewell struck me particularly hard: It wasn’t “I will miss you.” Children have been missing their teachers and classmates for months.
Over the past couple weeks, state and local education departments began releasing plans for fall schooling. These disclosures are as much information as indicators of what is unknown. Some states intend schools to reopen full time while asking students to wear masks and practice social distancing. Others combine rotating periods of in-person learning with days of distance education while offering optional full-time distance learning.
Even for schools and childcare centers that fully reopen, the spread of the virus in the meantime may change those plans. The American Enterprise Institute expects COVID-19 to disrupt school life throughout 2020, with the possibility of rolling closures triggered by new waves of infections or local outbreaks. The same stop-and-start reality will also be true for childcare providers and those who provide care for disabled or elderly people in communal settings. With so many unknowns, families find themselves in a holding pattern, missing teachers, classmates, and friends for an indefinite period of time.
It’s easy to resent the ways COVID-19 precautions have affected the places we love and rely on and dismiss them as the product of insensitive bureaucrats or biased media. But demanding that schools and childcare reopen as usual, virus be damned, displaces risk onto other people and families, including the many teachers who worry about the health implications of in-classroom learning.
We also may be tempted to resign to a state of frazzled helplessness. The flood of content about the burden of being a parent in the COVID-era conveys a narrative of being constantly overwhelmed. We hear about parents who have given up on distance-schooling, lost track of screen time limits, or reverted to mainly eating carbs for dinner. To be sure, caregiver burnout is real, and these narratives can rightly give families permission to experience exhaustion and grieve the loss of normalcy. But, placed on repeat, they can function like a pandemic version of the “wine mom” meme, training our focus on immediate discomforts while, ultimately, enervating the family and enshrining habits that are unhealthy and unsustainable.
In reality, God designed and entrusted families with the care of their members, in sickness and in health. Families honor the sacredness of life in all of its vulnerability and precarity (Ps. 68:6). Yes, there is brokenness in family life. But God also equips many families with resilience, adaptability, and love for just such a time as this.
The COVID-19 pandemic places heavy responsibilities on all of us. Families have a unique and crucial role. The place where we begin and are first formed, families are also a residual home base when other institutions close and a guardian of the sanctity of life. Families watch out for elders and those with special needs; ask difficult questions of nursing homes or care facilities; and gather and remember when it is time grieve.
Rather than deny or resent the responsibilities God has for families during COVID-19, we have the chance to identify practical ways to support families in rising to these tasks. If families are frazzled, it is often because they are too isolated and without enough support.
The first support for families is straightforward encouragement, particularly from the church. All the exhaustion, anxiety, and uncertainty that pastors feel right now—families experience those, too. A weekly note from a pastor to parents and caregivers in the congregation may go a long way in making God’s love and presence known through the layers of isolation imposed by COVID-19. Offering online storytime for children provides caregivers with an assist and reminds children that they are part of a loving church community.
The second way to support families is by paying attention to the balance of responsibility within the family. A recent survey suggested that men are taking on additional homeschooling responsibilities while children are at home, though women’s perspectives and emerging research suggest otherwise. Whether or not the crisis has yet brought about a realignment of household work, taking intentional steps to share or rotate caregiving shifts will help make pandemic life sustainable for families. There may be unexpected gains in new household habits as well. Fathers, for example, may have a chance at closeness with children that pre-pandemic patterns of work and home implicitly discouraged.
A third step is to make use of, and expand, the systems that sustain families through this crisis. In March, with COVID-19 closures first upon us, Congress amended our mutual aid system to adapt to the crisis. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act created an emergency paid family leave benefit that covers two-thirds of a worker’s pay while caring for a child whose school or daycare has closed. This emergency leave can cover up to 12 weeks total until the end of 2020. It is available to those who are self-employed and is mandated for many employers. Refundable tax credits absorb the cost to employers.
Polling suggests that many Americans are unfamiliar with the benefit, which came online amid a surge of new coronavirus-related legislation this spring. Many employers are unaware of the program as well. But it could further serve as a vital resource for families this fall, together with any paid leave an employer provides independently. As a first step, workers can check their eligibility for the federal benefit through a Department of Labor online tool and contact their human resource departments, bringing with them information about employer requirements under the newly created emergency paid leave program.
The majority of children in the United States live in households without a stay-at-home parent. For parents whose work cannot be done on a laptop—often those in blue-collar jobs or retail or human services—paid leave enables time at home to tend to little ones, to monitor the online classroom, or to offer at-home lessons. Notably, fathers and mothers eligible for the new emergency leave program can take that leave in increments so as to align their leave days with hybrid learning schedules anticipated in some school districts. Legislative and administrative changes should be made to replenish paid leave for those who already exhausted it when schools closed in the spring and to adapt it to a wider range of family situations and workers.
Finally, this is a time for workplaces to exercise flexibility and creativity. For example, Stroopies, a small, Pennsylvania-based cookie business, had to shut down due to statewide orders. Its Christian owner paid the employees for the first week—all of them are mothers who came to the US as refugees—and helped them navigate the process to obtain unemployment and emergency leave benefits. Now that Stroopies has reopened, the owner is welcoming staff back to work and holding jobs for those who need to be home with children over the summer.
Organizations have an opportunity to choose flexibility and resourcefulness for the sake of families. Likewise, congregations have opportunities to come alongside families in new ways—offering, for example, support or space for small-scale childcare or tutoring programs when schools are closed.
When my children said their goodbyes and turned off their computers that mid-June day, I felt bleak and exhausted, like a marathon runner who had just been challenged to a 10K. After summer camp at home concludes in August, the starting gun of another marathon will sound as a hybrid at-home/at-school semester begins. But once I let go of the frustration and desire to throw up my hands, a sense of peace crept in. As public theologian Ekemini Uwan explained, there is deep value in a radical acceptance of reality as it is.
Indeed, we can never honestly survey reality without God at our side or in our vision. Honest, prayerful reckoning with reality is an antidote to the temptations to give in to denial and burnout. Disease and financial hardship can be terrible to endure, but God has gifted and entrusted us with the capacity for resilience in and through the family, church, and even government.
It is not an injustice to ask families to be families right now, to offer a reservoir of care and a home base that no other institution can. It would be an injustice to fail to provide what families need to exercise their responsibilities.
Rachel Anderson is a resident fellow with the Families Valued initiative at the Center for Public Justice.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.