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How closing schools to ward off the corona virus hits low income kids hardest

Parents who work a low wage job can go to work and leave the kids at home — alone — or stay home and risk losing the job.

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Schools will be closed in Illinois beginning Monday because of the coronavirus.
Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Gov. J. B. Pritzker’s order on Friday that school buildings be closed is a proactive way to slow the exponential growth of the coronavirus.

School districts such as my own, in Glen Ellyn, will move to online learning to teach some 2 million students in Illinois, from pre-school through high school.

As dramatic and unsettling as Pritzker’s decision is, it is justified. It addresses a serious health crisis. But not every parent and child will be effected equally.

Parents who hold low wage jobs, typically paying $10 to $13 an hour, don’t usually get paid sick time or vacation days. And because of that, they are forced into an unconscionable dilemma when schools are closed.

They can go to work and leave the kids at home — alone — or they can stay home and risk losing their job.

And forget about that third option, affordable childcare. There’s far too little available.

Why must any parent have to make this choice?

Twenty-five to 28% of all American workers get no paid time off, and workers in food and personal services jobs have it the worst. Up to 75% of them get no paid sick time. By comparison, fewer then 6% of workers in higher income and professional jobs lack paid sick time.

An estimated 32.5 million private sector workers don’t get even one paid sick day a year. And disproportionately, they are women and people of color.

This inequity should not be tolerated. The Illinois Legislature should pass a bill — such as one sitting in the Senate now — that guarantees all workers a minimum number of paid sick days.

The U.S. House also is considering such a bill. If passed, the United States finally would join the rest of the world’s industrialized democratic nations in requiring this basic protection for workers who get sick.

Research on the benefits of paid sick leave is abundant and well established. Firms, workers, children and communities all experience increased well-being. Yet for all the evidence that paid sick leave is good for the economy and public health, there is less appreciation for its impact on school learning. Kids whose parents hold low income jobs will do better in school when those parents have paid sick leave and can better balance work and family needs.

In closing school buildings because of the coronavirus, we are acting in defense of our children and communities. But at an unrecognized price. In my school district, for example — Glen Ellyn District 41 — 23% of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Forty-nine percent of Illinois’ students are classified by the state as “low income.”

In Illinois, we talk about an academic “achievement gap” between children from low income and non-low income families. But it is more rightly called an “investment gap.” The difference in academic performance, a shameful 30%, reflects the many disadvantages of growing up poor.

And now, because schools will be closed, the hobson’s choice for the parents of 1 million such children in Illinois will be between going to work — to earn a paycheck and keep a job — or staying home and risking it all.

It will be one more trauma for low income families, one more economic pain that threatens to damage these kids for a lifetime.

Illinois has taken steps to address school funding disparities. A state law requiring paid sick leave would be a further step toward educational equality.

It would be a message, even as we work to fend off the coronavirus, that all kids count.

Robert Bruno is professor of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois and president of the Glen Ellyn District 41 school board.

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