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School’s out (in a lot of places)

In Italy, like most of Europe, schools have been closed because of coronavirus, and parents are thinking hard about how they are going to look after and entertain their children, for an unknown period of time. 

The BBC reported on a school, in northern Italy, that had closed due to the virus and Amanda Ferrario, the headteacher, said: “Our lessons continue uninterrupted.”

“The teacher enters a virtual classroom, does the roll call and can see students connected on their devices. They can work in groups, make presentations and show videos.”

The school is part of a network, Ashoka Changemakers, whose investment in the resource is paying off.

“This could be a turning point in Italian education,” she says, “and a chance to create innovative methods.”

She says: “Other schools may struggle because perhaps their teachers aren’t trained. We’re supporting those that ask for our help, as there are very few like us.” 

That’s excellent, but someone still needs to be at home with the pupils. Schools can continue to fulfill their role as educators, but not as childcarers. 

In the UK, there is a good chance that all schools will close over the Easter holidays (if not before), for two months. Two long months, or more. The Easter holidays might merge into the summer holidays.

This could have huge ramifications for everyone, whether they have children or not.

Since this is due to the virus, parents will have no choice but to look after their own kids themselves. Nurseries will be shut, activity holidays will, likewise, be unavailable. 

Sometimes grandparents are roped in to help with childcare (60% look after their grandchildren outside school hours), but this time it would be wrong to inflict children on this ‘at risk’ demographic.

While the childless may currently be more concerned about the Six Nations being cancelled, prolonged school closures could be a disaster for those blessed with kids. But it will affect everyone.

The economist, Simon Wren-lewis, modelled the effects of a pandemic and found that a virus like the current one could reduce GDP by a few percentage points in the first three months, but that if schools close for around four weeks, that can multiply the GDP impacts, by as much as a factor of three. Depending on the length of the school closures, this could rise to a loss to GDP of 6% or more.

This is where the political becomes personal; who will stay at home to look after the children, how long will they need to do this and will their firms put up with their absences? What if you don’t get paid while you look after them? How long can you pay your rent, or feed your family? What if you are a manual worker, or a zero hours contract employee? Suddenly our economy looks fragile and we see what jobs are of most value to society.

Doctors and nurses can’t stay at home to do their parenting duties, they need to look after us. Delivery drivers can’t either. If they start hanging out with their kids, there won’t be any bog-roll in Waitrose, and then where will we all be?

Single parents are stuffed. Stop work or let your children go feral. Sure, you can ask for parental leave, but that is unpaid and normally limited to four weeks per child. It is also based on secure employment, which is massively in decline. 90% of single-parent households are headed by women and single mothers are more likely to be living with school-age children than fathers.

In a double-breadwinner model, perhaps the parent with the most precarious work should take the least time off, but what if the other parent is a public sector worker, required to keep the show on the road?

People rely on schools to look after their kids and this will make them realise it. It will make everyone realise it. Private struggles are collective.

So, for some, like the Italian headteacher, the virus represents an opportunity, but for most people, for most businesses and for most schools, it represents a period of uncertainty, of uncertain duration, but at least as long as the Easter holidays. Which, as everyone knows, are always the moveable ones.

 

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