A draft plan from the Office of Councilmember Brad Lander, released July 11, 2020

The NYC Department of Education proposal for our public schools this fall will have students in the classroom just two to three days a week, on a rotating basis that will make life extremely difficult for working parents, especially low-income families with less job flexibility and fewer child care options. 

About half of elementary school families (and nearly 30% of those with middle schoolers) indicated in a recent DOE survey that they would need child care for the time their kids aren’t in the classroom. The current staggered scheduling plan proposed by the DOE will still leave over 100,000 kids every day whose families need child care. 

New York City has a responsibility to make sure that the steps forward in our schools don’t make life impossible for working parents. A just economic recovery must center working families, and avoid deepening the inequality divide in our city. 

This is one of the hardest policy challenges ever. But we can do it, and we must. In the absence of a plan from City Hall, here is a three-part proposal for how to scale up child care capacity to help parents get through the next school year. 

  • Provide wrap-around child care and enrichment activities for the time kids aren’t in the classroom, for all families who need it.
  • Mandate that employers provide accommodations for working parents. 
  • Support existing child care providers to reopen and stay solvent.

This will be a massive undertaking, just like scaling up our hospital capacity, building a new Test & Trace Corps, or offering emergency food to 1 million New Yorkers. The DOE has a massive task to reopen schools and cannot possibly be expected to solve this problem alone.

Step 1 is for Mayor de Blasio to immediately appoint a child care czar to coordinate the program, working closely not just with the DOE but with the Department of Youth and Community Development, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the NYC Economic Development Corporation, as well as private sector and not-for-profit organizations. 

Child Care and Enrichment Activities Outside the Classroom

For all families who need it, the City needs to provide a mix of age-appropriate enrichment activities for the time that students are not in the classroom. Working parents, including teachers, will need child care on the days their students are not in school.

The City should immediately issue Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for: 

  • Space: Space can be offered in community centers, settlement houses, libraries, after-school organizations, YMCAs, houses of worship, theaters and cultural organizations, office buildings, storefronts, community gardens, even some tents set up in school playgrounds or parks. Spaces will need to meet guidelines for social distancing. These spaces will need to be outfitted with age-appropriate furniture, WiFi, and technology so students can participate in remote learning activities for some parts of the day. In the heroic campaign to expand Universal Pre-K to all New Yorkers, Mayor de Blasio and his team outfitted thousands of classrooms on an expedited timeline, so the City already has a good template for what is required.
  • Programming & operations: Enrichment activities and child care can be offered by not-for-profit community organizations, child care providers, settlement houses, summer camp operators, after-school programs and more. The NYC Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) and other City agencies already contract with thousands of human service providers in neighborhoods across the city, both not-for-profit and for-profit, so they can be brought on board quickly and flexibly. With leadership and a strong framework for collaboration, we can tap into the creativity, expertise, and social solidarity of New Yorkers, and into the well of programs and staff whose traditional programming has not been possible due to COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Staffing: The staff for these programs will be hired by the organizations who operate the programs, but the City can play a helpful role in online recruitment, background checks, etc. Staff for this program don’t need to be credentialed teachers (as it would be impossible to hire so many in such short order, and some will likely be needed in the schools themselves given the likelihood of many existing teachers serving remotely). Instead, they will be a mix of human service staff, college students and young people, class parents, and out-of-work New Yorkers with background in child care. In May, the City moved rapidly to hire up thousands of staff for the new Test & Trace Corps. We must do the same here.  

This effort will involve massive coordination, which is why it needs to be organized centrally by City Hall. There are opportunities for the private sector to play a role in each area above, and of course to help provide information about the scheduling and support needed in different sectors of the economy. And of course coordination will be required as well with schools themselves, so that access is made safe and convenient, based on where students live and go to school.

Mandate that employers provide accommodations for working parents. 

New York City should require employers to accommodate employees whose working hours are limited by school availability. Many employers have provided flexibility thus far, and some would surely continue to do so. However, parents in low wage jobs are far less likely to get that flexibility. If we as a city are only going to make it possible for working families to have half-time public schooling, then we’ll need to mandate that accommodations are made for half-time working, too. Rather than cross our fingers that every employer will do the right thing, the City should require it by law. 

In 2017, the City Council passed a law requiring “fair scheduling” for fast-food and retail workers that can serve as a model. The Fair Work Week Law requires employers in those sectors to provide schedules up to 2 weeks in advance, so that workers can plan child care, doctors visits, or other part-time employment and count on a consistent income. 

For the duration of the crisis, employers should be required to:

  • Provide reasonable accommodations to employees whose hours of availability are limited as a result of the school hours of their children.
  • Work with staff to set schedules with sufficient advance notice to plan child care. The City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection should make open-source scheduling software available to support this.
  • Not retaliate or discriminate against employees as a result of being working parents, on the hours of availability based on schooling, or on seeking reasonable accommodation.   

(This will not, alas, replace lost income, for hourly employees whose hours are dramatically reduced. That’s why it is so essential for the City to provide wrap-around child care, for New York State to establish an Excluded Worker Fund for workers who have been excluded from federal income replacement, and for Congress to extend Unemployment Insurance and federal stimulus payments.) 

Support existing child care providers to reopen and stay solvent.

The child care industry has long operated on slim margins with high fixed costs. The months of closure due to the pandemic, and ongoing uncertainty, has left them in crisis. Without significant subsidy, and support reopening, many will be forced to close, leaving parents with fewer options for affordable care, and providers, many of whom are women of color, with debt and lost income. 

City Hall must immediately identify a point person to work with child care providers and be a resource as they navigate the many new requirements to operate with safe social distancing and cleaning. 

All of this will require significant new funding. New York State has millions of dollars still unallocated from the CARES Act for child care, but vastly more will be needed. Obviously there is no reason to believe anything Trump or Betsy DeVos say about schools (or anything else); but if they believe schools should be open, then billions in federal funding are necessary. 

If these resources are not forthcoming from the federal government, then New York State must be willing to raise revenues to pay for child care. Thus far, Governor Cuomo has resisted calls from advocates and legislators to tax the wealthiest households, close the carried interest loophole protecting private equity and hedge fund managers from fair taxation, or consider many other avenues for progressive taxation. But even setting aside issues of fairness, failing to provide the funding necessary to provide working families with child care this fall will do far more harm to New York’s economy than increasing taxes modestly on New York State’s 100+ billionaires (and they will still have plenty left over to pay for child care of their own). 

City leaders must work together with our state and federal representatives to advocate forcefully at the state and federal levels for the billions of dollars in funds that are needed to stabilize the child care industry, a bedrock of our economy.

Join the campaign: In the absence of a plan from City Hall to address the needs of New York City’s working families, my office has prepared this outline to help us get started together. We’re eager for your additional ideas, and to build a strong campaign to demand action from Mayor de Blasio, and then to help do the massive work necessary to make it work.

Please sign our petition and provide your additional ideas for our plan to make back-to-school work this fall for New York City’s working families.