If ensuring that parents make ends meet were the only objective, a universal basic income or a continued stimulus would help keep families from falling into dire straits, both personally and financially. For example, the federal government could implement a program that would regularly issue stipends similar to the $1,200 checks that many Americans received this spring. “To have people live in [a] situation where they literally don’t know where their next dollar is coming from, it not only creates economic hardship; it creates psychological hardship,” Francine Blau, who teaches economics at Cornell University, told me. So for parents who have had to reduce their hours or quit their jobs entirely to care for their children, she said, a reliable form of continuous income could help tremendously. But although a universal basic income could help working parents avoid falling into financial ruin, it wouldn’t do much to improve the outlook for kids’ education, which would still be remote (and therefore less effective than in-person learning).
A more comprehensive solution could look something like a nationwide compassionate-leave policy. Usually, compassionate leave refers to paid time off to care for an ailing relative or to grieve for a relative who has recently died. But during the pandemic, the Vermont-based nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids, which advocates for quality early-childhood education, gave workers up to 12 weeks of compassionate leave to take as they wished, and also allowed those whose kids’ schools had closed to work on flexible schedules. Let’s Grow Kids’ CEO, Aly Richards, told me that because a number of those employees are taking just two hours of leave a day, their paid-leave time will stretch into the future. With that extra couple of hours in the day to care for or homeschool kids and the freedom to work some of their hours after the kids are asleep, parents are more productive in their work, Richards has found. Especially in homes with two parents, who can each take a short shift watching the kids, Richards noted, a few extra hours to focus on kids rather than work can go a long way.