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The (gender) politics of COVID-19


One of the biggest questions facing the USA regarding the pandemic is what do do about schools. Here in Boulder, the current plan at the elementary school level at least is to cut class size in half, by having students attend in person on alternate days. On other days, the children are supposed to be “home schooled” via “remote learning.”

Note just some of the assumptions at work here:

(1) Every family has a parent who can stay at home during the day for at least half of every week.

(2) These parents are so unoccupied during the day that they can take on what is normally considered a full-time job (teaching children).

(3) These parents are capable of doing what everybody agrees is an absolutely critical job — although of course it’s not paid as if it were one — even though almost all of them have exactly zero training in doing this job.

(4) Small children can be “home schooled” via remote technology in a meaningful way.

(5) Having children attend school with other children half-time in 50% smaller than usual classes will be an effective way to keep the virus from spreading.

All of this is basically magical thinking. (Similarly delusional logic is at play in regard to reopening university campuses, but that’s a subject for another post). At its root in the always unspoken and usually subconscious assumption that there’s a cadre of tens of millions of Americans — let’s call them “women” — who are available for full-time unpaid untrained employment, on top of their existing paid and unpaid work obligations.

As Scott noted the other day, there’s no easy answer to question of what to do about the schools in the midst of a pandemic. But one thing that certainly doesn’t make sense is to take a bunch of half measures that will neither slow the spread of the virus, nor meaningfully educate young children, nor allow for families to engage in sustainable social and economic arrangements.

The modal American woman with school-age children isn’t Betty Draper, and even if she were, Betty Draper shouldn’t be expected to miraculously transform herself into a competent teacher, while, apparently, outsourcing all the household’s domestic labor to our heroic but somehow still extremely low-paid “essential workers.”

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