Published on June 26th, 2020 | by Sarah W. Jaffe1
Who Gets To Opt Out? Checking Privilege in Checking Out of Zoom-School
My daughter’s last day of “school” is fast approaching. I’m not sure of the exact date, because nothing about our lives will change. Back in March I tried, with no success, to get her interested in her daily Zoom preschool meetings before I abandoned the effort and we started spending our mornings offline in Prospect Park. My daughter is not yet three years old, but parents with older kids have made similar decisions: a few days into school shutdowns, Jennie Weiner’s article, I Refuse to Run a Coronavirus Homeschool, in which she defended her choice to let her kids eat cookies, watch TV, and play videogames, urging the reader to “judge me all you want,” ran in the New York Times opinion section. In the Washington Post, Lenore Skenazy, a free-range parenting advocate, wrote a similar piece: “Our kids are not going to seed even if they are sleeping, gaming and bingeing on YouTube.”
I identify with both of these women. Since the shutdown, I’ve mostly been following their lead. In a parent text chain, I’ve joked about my “homeschooling methods.” I spent one afternoon looking at old pictures of movie stars with my daughter on my phone. On a different day, we spent three hours playing a game where we put her doll on a tree branch and shook the tree to get her out.
But there are many families who—in the midst of a pandemic and even in the past weeks, while witnessing shocking, state-sanctioned violence—don’t have the privilege to just opt out.
Jennie Weiner acknowledges in her article having “solid health care” “economic stability,” and “whiteness”—privileges I share with her. She’s a professor, and the kind of parent who gets to say “judge me all you want” and know that she will face no real repercussions beyond glances askance. Likewise, Lenore Skenazy (who went to Yale for undergrad and has a masters from Columbia) turned her decision to let her 9-year-old son ride the subway alone into a book deal and a cheekily titled TV show, “World’s Worst Mom.” In comparison Debra Harrell, a Black mother in South Carolina, spent 17 days in jail after letting her daughter, also age 9, play without supervision at a public park. Or consider this parallel: At the beginning of April, I read a heartful Instagram post by a white writer, Lizzie Assa, talking about her family’s decision to cease online schooling for her first grader, citing the incredible stress it was causing for everyone in her household, adorned by thousands of likes and positive comments. A few weeks later, City Magazine published an article about how families in New York City homeless shelters, who “struggle to get diapers, much less share limited shelter internet hotspots” were being reported to the child abuse and neglect hotline for their failure to report to online school. Over and over again, poor families, and particularly poor families of color, are punished for the same “free range” parenting choices that well-off white families enjoy, get patted on the back for, and can even monetize.
Heading into the summer, many families who are struggling the most with the financial fallout from the pandemic still aren’t aren’t getting a break. Jaquan Melton, a young Black father of a third grader and a kindergartner, who I know from my time as an attorney in Bronx family court, has been navigating online schooling for both his two daughters and, on some days, for two of their half-siblings, a 4-device dance that he said made him feel like “an octopus.” His daughters are also two of the approximately 102,000 kids in New York City who are required to attend summer school—school which, this year, will also be online. He wants to do whatever is necessary for their academic growth, but is exhausted at the idea of a summer full of the same online schooling that isn’t really working for his girls now.
Kasha Phillips-Lewis is another parent who doesn’t get to opt out: her ten-year-old daughter was the face of a New York Times article at the beginning of the crisis about the struggle families faced in transitioning to remote learning; the Department of Education had failed to provide her with a web-enabled device, and she was attempting to do her schoolwork on a phone screen. I reached Phillips-Lewis in April to ask her whether the DOE had gotten her a web device. It had… a full three weeks after the news story had run. But she was quick to tell me: “She didn’t miss school. We used the hotspot on my phone and the tablet that she got from the school that wasn’t hooked up to the mobile network.” She was vigilant about correcting any implication that she’d allowed her daughter to slack off. I understood why. She had jumped through hoops to make sure that her daughter wouldn’t miss a single day despite the impossible task put before her, and didn’t want that small victory taken away. Parents who live in the shelter system also live with the constant knowledge that their children can be taken from them. She told me later in the conversation that she grew up in foster care herself, and is fighting hard to give her daughter a different childhood.
The circumstances of COVID are demanding the impossible of families: parents are being asked to work and parent simultaneously, to be teachers and chefs and cleaners, all without any of their usual support. Essential workers are being asked to do all of that, and to put their lives at risk. I don’t begrudge any parent for doing what works for his or her family right now, or for writing about it when they’ve found what gets them through. But COVID has cleanly crystalized a pattern in which well-off parents are allowed to decide what’s right for their families—and poorer families are told what is best for theirs. Parents like me are allowed to look at the task before us and decide that we aren’t going to attempt the impossible, and assume a gentle bounce back for our kids; or at least, assume we get to make that choice without official repercussion. It’s an aspect of privilege that’s invisible to those who live it, because we can’t imagine living another way.
There isn’t an easy answer to any of this. If schools do re-open in the fall, families with less resources are likely to be hit the hardest by the virus; if they don’t, families with less resources will be hit the hardest by the loss of education time. What is clear is that if the next generation isn’t going to face even starker inequalities than the one before it, it will be untenable for the parents with the most to think only of their own child’s well-being. The worst outcome will be if the families with the most just hop off the grid without demanding more for all families: more monetary relief, a child protection system that gives families real support rather than punishment (particularly in the midst of a crisis), and an education system that reaches all families regardless of their access to broadband. Families with privilege can opt out of a lot–but, if we care about children other than our own, we need to stay invested: pressure our representatives to extend unemployment protections, to keep going to PTA meetings even if our kid isn’t participating in Zoom school, to, if at all possible, keep paying for services like childcare or housecleaning even if we aren’t using them, since those workers likely have families who are relying on their incomes.
And at the most basic level, to simply reach out to families who are struggling and ask them the most basic question, the question that has guided all my parenting decisions for the last few months: what would make your life easier right now, and how can I help? That shouldn’t be a question that only certain parents get asked, or are allowed to answer.