As the debate over whether and when to reopen schools rages across the country, it’s important to note that any conversation that simplifies the choice to “keep them closed” or “reopen them” is missing one critical issue: equity. And while the conversation hurtles forward on whether it’s “safe enough” to open schools today, tomorrow, next month, or three months from now, without a focus on equity, the decisions made on when and how schools are reopened could have harmful impacts on children and their families that last generations.

This lack of focus on equitable outcomes should be unsurprising—throughout history, many U.S. public policy decisions have been imbued with or even predicated on racism and sexism. From the systemic underinvestment in educational funding and opportunity for students of color, to the lack of universal child care or paid leave that makes it impossible for many families to have both work and caregiving, to the significant imbalance in resources between K–12 schools and the child care sector, to the undervaluing of teachers who are mostly women, and, at the same time, the racial mismatch of a teaching force that is 80 percent white when a majority of American children are children of color, the biases against women and people of color are so embedded in our history and systems that they are making a challenging situation impossible.

Based on the current national conversations about reopening schools, at best, our choices will exacerbate our current significant racial and gender inequities; at worst, they will make the gaps so big it will feel like we will never be able to close them. This lack of focus on equity is troubling, because the long-term prospects for children’s wellbeing, family economic security and mobility, racial equity and gender equity depend on the decisions policymakers make today.

Based on the current national conversations about reopening schools, at best, our choices will exacerbate our current significant racial and gender inequities; at worst, they will make the gaps so big it will feel like we will never be able to close them.

In this moment, faced with only bad options, parents, educators, child care providers, school staff, and students have every reason to be scared, confused, and angry. (As mothers of children ranging from age 2 to 15 and who work as policy experts in health, education, caregiving and workplace issues, the authors of this commentary certainly are.) Serving the needs of children and families should be the national priority right now. Figuring out how and when to safely reopen schools and child care programs, and what types of resources are actually needed to make this work, is a complex puzzle; solving it will require recognizing the educational equity, child care equity, health equity, and workplace equity gaps that existed pre-COVID-19, and making choices about reopening that do not compound their harmful effects.

Lessons from the Continuing Spread of COVID-19

Any discussion of COVID-19 and equity can’t ignore the disparate impact the virus itself has had on American society. To date, more than 5.1 million people in the United States have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 164,000 lives have been lost. The U.S. public health response to COVID-19 has been an embarrassment, with poor national leadership and misplaced bravado leading to repeated spikes in cases nationwide. The communities that have been hit the hardest are those that are already vulnerable, due to inadequate wealth, lack of health insurance coverage, an inability to physically distance due to space limitations or close living conditions, and lack of autonomy in their work. Black, Latinx, and Native people in particular are more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to the ways in which structural racism and inequitable policies have contributed to their likelihood of having underlying health conditions, and experiencing long-standing, historical barriers to accessing affordable quality health care.

While no one has been safe from the virus, the cities and states that are currently in the safest position share certain commonalities: transparent, science-based leadership; strict distancing and masking rules, and cooperation with those rules; widespread access to COVID-19 diagnostic testing; and strict guidelines on business reopenings, particularly if the business is conducted indoors. These are valuable lessons and also an important guideline for thinking about how to keep school communities—students, teachers, school leadership and staff, and families—healthy and safe.

The fast spread of the virus, the undetectable initial symptoms, the ability to be an asymptomatic carrier, and the lack of knowledge about how children spread COVID-19 and the possible long-term effects of exposure to it, all make it extremely scary to bring people into close contact, especially in closed, indoor spaces. Yet, in communities that have flattened the curve, where space is plentiful, where outdoor options are possible, and where the resources for testing, cleaning, distancing options are available, the fear certainly decreases and more is possible. Even as these solutions are considered as part of broader strategies and plans to reopen schools, however, the inequities that low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities could face this fall must also be front-and-center.

How School Reopening Decisions Will Impact Inequities

Even before the pandemic, American public education was highly unequal and inequitable. Students of color, low-income children, English learners, and students with disabilities already were less likely to attend schools that had the necessary resources, strong teachers, and good curricular opportunities; as a result, substantial achievement gaps and outcomes gaps persist. COVID-19-related school closures and the remote-learning challenges that followed are expected to further widen these gaps. In some schools, all students were more easily able to connect online; in others, students struggled to get the digital devices and Internet access they need. Some children have parents at home helping them with schoolwork, while others are children of essential workers, and thus may be supervised by caregivers, unsupervised, or even may be responsible for caring for their younger siblings. Data show the systemic impacts of these challenges: many students, particularly Black and Latinx students, were not regularly engaging with their schools this spring.

The same students that have been most negatively impacted by school closures—students of color, low-income children, English learners, and students with disabilities—must also be put front and center when schools are reopened. Some efforts that have been proposed will instead exacerbate inequities, such as efforts to catch up struggling students by creating “half-grades” or automatically holding back large groups of students, which could result in more vulnerable students landing in remedial academic tracks, which only depress achievement over time, rather than giving them the extra learning time and supports needed to catch up. And as our colleague Michelle Burris has noted, the longstanding racial disparities in school discipline give reason to worry that Black and Latinx students will bear disproportionate discipline for breaking new school health guidelines, such as wearing masks and staying six feet apart or for failing to meet virtual learning requirements around logging on and turning in assignments. Instead, reopenings must be urgently paired with deep attention to academic catch up and support, including, for example, a meaningful investment in evidence-based tutoring, and extended learning time for students.

The same students that have been most negatively impacted by school closures—students of color, low-income children, English learners, and students with disabilities—must also be put front and center when schools are reopened.

In addition, we know school is not only a place for academic instruction. Schools provide social and emotional support and development as students engage with their peers and with educators; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all schools prioritize safe, in-person instruction, noting the impact of schools on children’s development and well-being, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, alongside academic attainment. And for low-income children and those experiencing other economic hardships and challenges, the social services and supports students are offered are lifelines. This includes healthy meals, access to health providers and therapists, use of school-based laundry facilities, and refuge during the day from home for children who are experiencing abuse.

In addition to educational inequities experienced by students from marginalized communities of concern, so too are the health inequities they experience as a result of COVID-19. Decisions about schedules and procedures for school reopening have implications for the health and well-being not only of students but also their families, friends, and communities. With 5.4 million Americans losing their health insurance due to unemployment between February and May of this year—the largest coverage loss this country has seen in an entire year—the further spread of COVID-19 resulting from a premature, full-scale reopening of schools could be catastrophic for these families. Low-income families and families of color were already more likely to lack affordable health insurance coverage and health care access before the pandemic. These are also the same families most likely to be on the brink of evictions or foreclosures and food insecurity that are the result of the COVID-19 recession, issues that are directly linked to the ability to be healthy.

It should not be lost on us that not only are students of color more likely to lose a parent or loved one to COVID-19, they are more likely to become sick and hospitalized due to the disease themselves. According to a new study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Hispanic children are eight times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than white children, and Black children are five times more likely to be hospitalized. These racial disparities in pediatric cases mirror those that we see in the adult population. Furthermore, in addition to physical health concerns associated with COVID-19, some students are experiencing anxiety and depression as a result of being away from their friends. For students from undocumented and mixed status families, the impact of the virus has been particularly hard. In addition to testing, distancing and proper hygiene measures in schools, mental health services and supports must also be in place and offered to students. Students with disabilities also typically receive school-based physical and mental health therapy. Mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that these services can still be accessed safely, even for schools that remain closed in the fall.

The ability to be at school may also be a source of refuge for children who cannot physically distance at home due to close living quarters and multi-generational living conditions; then again, possible exposure to the virus at school could mean putting elderly relatives at risk. More than 64 million Americans—that’s one in five U.S. residents—live in multi-generational households. These are all challenges that low-income students and students of color face disproportionately. For schools that remain closed, social services and supports must continue and accommodations should be made for students in need with health and safety precautions.

Gender Equity Challenges If Schools Don’t Reopen

In addition to serving so many student needs, for families with preschool- through middle-school-age children, school is also where children are supervised while parents work. According to Census data, since May, about 7 million people per week have not worked because they didn’t have access to child care. With schools, after school, and child care programs closed or limiting capacity or hours for safety reasons, parents, especially mothers, will continue to feel the impact on their ability to work, which will further increase gender inequities. Black, Latinx, and Native women—who face intersecting oppressions—are feeling the multiple effects of being more likely to have lost their jobs, more likely to be on the frontlines as essential workers, and more likely to be solving their child care challenges on their own. Women are also the majority of teachers, and women of color are a disproportionate number of the child care providers being impacted by reopening decisions.

Despite the challenges of outdated work and caregiving policies and norms that don’t center or serve women—especially women of color—earlier this year, before COVID-19 began to wreak havoc, data showed that women held more than half of the nation’s (civilian nonfarm) jobs. While this high level of workforce participation is a sign of progress, women still are sabotaged by unequal pay, fewer leadership positions, and a disproportionate amount of time spent on caregiving and managing their households. Moreover, study after study has shown that—as a result of pandemic-induced school, child care, and camp closings—significantly more women than men have reduced their work hours, left work to care for children, and spent more time on education and household tasks.

Without school and child care this fall, between cutting back hours, leaving work all together, and trying to work and parent all at the same time, women’s workplace progress will be on a steady backward trajectory.

Without school and child care this fall, between cutting back hours, leaving work all together, and trying to work and parent all at the same time, women’s workplace progress will be on a steady backward trajectory. Meanwhile, if past trends are any indication, the moms who take on these challenges will be seen as fulfilling their gender roles, while the dads will be heralded as heroes, or provided the benefit of the doubt that their non-care jobs were more important. Policymakers must make smarter decisions that will foster progress on gender equity, not demolish it.

Policy Initiatives That Put Equity Front and Center

While the challenges regarding when and how to reopen schools are far from simple, solving for equity must be our national priority. And while many of the decisions will be made locally, reopening schools in a way that narrows instead of widens the equity fissures will require that the federal government step up with significant resources for states, localities, schools, child care programs, and families.

For the preeminent challenge we face—stopping the spread of the virus and shoring up public health—we will need, among other things, widespread free COVID testing and equal access to vaccines when they are available, such as what is in the HEROES Act, and access to health care for all, regardless of immigration status. But this is not enough. Schools and child care programs should also receive resources to cover health and safety expenses, such as providing PPE for students, teachers, and school staff free of charge; renting extra space to maintain safe distancing; ensuring safe ventilation systems; implementing health screenings; doing extra cleaning; and additional measures to adhere to CDC guidelines and other public health expertise.

To address the racial and other educational equity issues we anticipate, one helpful measure would be spending at least $175 billion for the Education Stabilization Fund, distributed in an equitable manner, and with a maintenance of equity requirement to ensure that states do not make budget cuts in ways that disproportionately impact predominantly Black, Latinx, and high-poverty districts—the very districts that already have large funding gaps—as we have seen happen in previous recessions. Schools also need dedicated funding for academic catch-up and social and emotional supports for vulnerable students who are experiencing large educational losses and trauma in their communities as a result of this crisis.

At the same time, child care and paid leave are crucial to gender equity and ensuring that parents have solutions to working and caregiving. Families across the country were already facing child care shortages and living in child care deserts before the pandemic unfolded. The pandemic-related school, camp and child care closures have merely exposed the vulnerabilities we’ve created by not investing in and maintaining a robust child care system—and it has shown why we cannot go back to the way things were. A recent NAEYC poll indicated that many child care providers simply will not be able to continue serving families without additional public funding. Approximately two out of five respondents—and half of those who run minority-owned businesses—are certain that they will close permanently without additional public assistance that would allow them to compensate and retain staff, pay rent or mortgages, and cover other fixed costs. The Child Care Is Essential Act, which includes $50 billion to stabilize the child care sector, has already passed on a bipartisan basis in the House of Representatives, but is unlikely to see action in the Senate.

In addition, for parents who will need to facilitate remote learning, paid leave is an important solution to ensure they can stay connected to their jobs and receive a paycheck while they provide care. While older children may be able to engage in distance learning with little supervision, for parents of young children and some children with disabilities, this is not feasible. Paid family and medical leave will support parents to care for—and help teach—their children. This will help all parents, but will be especially crucial for mothers who are more likely to be impacted, and for families struggling to make ends meet. In addition, for children going to school, there will be times when they might need to quarantine because a fellow student or teacher has symptoms, or tests positive for COVID-19. Paid leave policies—including paid sick days—must cover everyone, so that families can manage these challenging situations. Congress passed Emergency Paid Leave provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Relief Package, but the program excludes about half the workforce and expires at the end of the year. It’s time to consider a longer, more comprehensive, universal paid leave for all policy—like the Paid Leave Act—to support families during this crisis period.

Still, these solutions are not enough. The pandemic is requiring schools, child care programs and families to develop and conform to new sets of rules, which requires creative thinking. For example, with so many child care workers out of a job, and so many families currently needing child care, can the government put these two halves together in a way that supports families in smaller child care settings while also improving the quality of those jobs? Similarly, can a push to stabilize and grow AmeriCorps speed our return to a healthy society by providing a meaningful boost to many young people’s careers, delivering necessary supports to the communities most impacted by the pandemic, and maintaining the strength of the nonprofit sector? While there are many areas in which AmeriCorps members can serve, including contact tracing and support for seniors, supporting students, educators, and school systems is among the most critical this fall—from running remote learning and afterschool centers for students, to providing academic tutoring or social and emotional supports. The Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act, or a similar plan to expand AmeriCorps slots and support communities, could provide the needed support.

At the same time, creativity and equity require that schools and districts look beyond binary decisions. To center fairness and allow students, families and educators to make choices that feel comfortable to them, school systems can offer remote options for families that so choose, while ensuring in-person options are available for vulnerable students and families who choose these options. School systems that are short on space to meet CDC social distancing guidelines can prioritize opening in-person for younger students, who are both more in need of instruction and care, and may be less likely to spread the virus; while others can open for everyone under the right circumstances. Some schools are experimenting with outdoor learning. Teachers are identifying the best face mask designs to help educators and students communicate effectively. A school district is providing a babysitting certification course for high school students to give them the chance to earn income and help with families’ childcare needs. Afterschool providers are partnering with local churches and synagogues to use their spaces to provide socially-distanced childcare or space during the school day for students to learn remotely. While locally grown examples are inspiring, national leaders should step up with the similar creative solutions at scale and the resources to support them.

Coming Together to Solve Big Problems

Months ago, before they answered questions about reopening restaurants or retail stores, government leaders at every level should have been laser-focused on ensuring that America’s children are getting the best educational and emotional support possible and that parents have child care in place so that they can work. Instead, our leaders have put families, teachers, child care providers and local leaders in an untenable position by failing to stop the spread of COVID-19. While the solutions are not all obvious, what is clear is that individual families, schools and child care programs should not be left alone to address this crisis. A challenge this big requires serious public investment and prioritization, and an intentional commitment to solving for historic inequities. Nothing less than racial and gender equity and the next generation of children is at stake.