School closures will lay bare the private struggles so many of us endure
The likely coronavirus response will disrupt family life and show just how many children, parents and grandparents need care
There is an unlovely 20-second gap, in the parenting experience, between any given negative event and a sense of solidarity kicking in: the quick thrill of “I’m all right, Jack”. Toddlers, screaming in the supermarket? Not my circus, not my monkeys. Schools closing down for two months straight, which realistically would mean the Easter holidays rolling into September, the world transformed into one endless summer? My kids are 12 and 10, and I work from home. What could possibly be more clement, I thought? It’ll be like having co-workers, except in pyjamas.
This was only fleeting, before the calamity kicked in. The disruption caused by mass school closures would be simply unmatched by any freak event in living memory: no flood, no ash cloud, no financial crash comes close to losing so much of the workforce to childcare, and for so long. We have some experience of multiple schools closing across a number of regions, for norovirus; that tended to be for no more than a couple of days, for deep cleaning. We know what it’s like to have snow days dispersed across a few counties, or for the whole country to seize up after a strong wind (if you can remember as far back as 1987). Few economic effects were observed, and none talked about, because the disruption was absorbed into each individual family, as misfortunes tend to be.
There would be no absorbing the prolonged and widespread seizure coronavirus might cause. None of the usual fixes of the regular summer holidays would be available. Families couldn’t outsource to other settings, since once schools have closed, it makes no sense for nurseries, or indeed any hotbed of child-concentration, to remain open. Most other options are completely unaffordable on an average income.
Grandparents often step in for the regular holidays – 60% look after their grandchildren after school or outside term time – but to close a school to contain a virus, then send the children to be looked after by the group it most affects, would feel wrong even for the most desperate parent.
Currently, the noises emanating from government are that schools will hopefully not have to close, and large gatherings do not yet need to be cancelled. I use “noises” advisedly – none of Boris Johnson’s announcements ascend to the status of explanation or argument. Instead, just an emollient chuntering, that it will be better if we don’t panic. School closures, by definition dramatic, are the opposite of keeping calm and carrying on. Ultimately, though, positive self-talk is not an effective response to a potential pandemic.
There is nothing to suggest that the disease will avoid the same trajectory here as in northern Italy. The chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, has already warned that closing schools may be necessary “for quite a long time, probably more than two months”. His credentials put him in pole position to make predictions at a time of unknowns, and it is worth noting his emphasis – he’s not saying this will happen, only that it will be considered. Yet he, along with every known commentator, puts school closures in a category with cancelling major sports events and large cultural gatherings. And every parent is listening to that open-mouthed, thinking there is no possible comparison between eight unexpected weeks of childcare, and postponing the Six Nations Ireland v Italy showdown.
Economists have modelled the effects of a pandemic. A decade ago Simon Wren-Lewis found that such a virus could reduce GDP by “a few percentage points” in the first quarter. But “if schools close for around four weeks, that can multiply the GDP impacts … by as much as a factor of three, and if they close for a whole quarter by twice that.” All things considered, he believes the GDP effect with schools closed for three months would be a loss of just under 5%; the greatest impact under every model he tried would be 6%.
Yet as the markets go into freefall and the oil price tumbles, economists discuss every possible factor, so long as they relate to us as producers and consumers. From panic buying and panic not-buying, to dislocations in supply and demand as the virus hits different countries at different times, and governments respond with varying efficacy, to sectoral analyses of tourism, manufacturing and leisure. But the reality is, whatever crisis comes will be mediated not through our wallets but through our homes: who are we caring for, and for how long?
Single parents in work would be worst and fastest hit, and a third of children in these families already live in poverty. Eligible employees are allowed to ask for parental leave but it is unpaid, and generally limited to four weeks for each child. Naturally that’s based on secure employment, which given the growth of zero-hours contracts is a bold assumption. Ninety percent of single-parent households in the UK are headed by women, and single mothers are more likely than fathers to be living with school-age children.
In a standard double-breadwinner model, it may make more sense for the parent with the most precarious work to take the least time off, but a competing imperative will be that public sector workers – likely to be in more secure jobs – will come under intense pressure to keep the show on the road, especially in health and other essential services.
Closures would immediately expose how many people are relying on school, not just for the core hours but for the wraparound time and the free school meals. There’s a real tendency, especially among mothers, to mask how close to capacity they run, having a full-time job and young children – and for good reason, because the discrimination they face, both overt (unfair dismissal) and subtle (lack of progression) is well documented. But the regular fray of day-to-day crises, minutely avoided and privately smoothed over, will turn into something quite different when everyone is facing the same crisis, and it’s continuous.
The response will break one of two ways, though possibly both simultaneously: a scramble for someone to blame, and given the government’s probity it’s likely we’ll have to look far; but also a recognition of how many apparently private struggles are, in fact, collective. This has so far only considered the generation in the active workforce, not the grandparents – who may themselves be relying on informal familial care – and the children, for whom virus season ends just as exam season begins.
This will force a new perspective on old conversations. After a decade of considering citizenship only in terms of economic activity – whether you work and how hard – the reality will land of how few sole traders there actually are in society. Almost all of us are in a nexus of need and care, keeping the economy afloat with a doggedness that could never be monetised; and nobody would ever think to count until it ground to a halt.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist