What happens to parents when community spaces close?

Daniel A. Cox, Samuel J. Abrams August 12, 2020


If it takes a village to raise a child, what happens to parents when the village goes into lockdown? When all of the villagers undergo social distancing and self-quarantine?

This is not a hypothetical concern, but the reality for millions of parents, many of whom have been engaged in superhuman efforts juggling working and parenting full-time — and doing it for months on end with no sign of relief. A recent study by the American Enterprise Institute found that most public schools closed their doors to in-person teaching in mid-March. That was four months ago.

new report finds that parents are struggling immensely. A majority of parents feel socially isolated and depressed at least once a week. Half of the parents report having cried in the last week out of feelings of frustration or exhaustion. Rates of emotional distress are even higher among mothers and among single parents.

With the school year only a few weeks away, much of public discussion has centered around how schools might reopen around the country. Rightly so. Schools and daycares are a critical part of the village infrastructure, providing for the educative needs and emotional growth of young people. We’ve paid far less attention to the other parts of our social infrastructure parents rely on — parks, playgrounds, public pools, libraries, community centers, as well as corner stores, coffee houses, and the streetscape itself. With much of the country experiencing dramatic increases in Covid-19 infections, many public and commercial spaces that serve as critical support systems are off limits or offering far more limited opportunities for social interactions and support parents and children need.

Parents take advantage of community services and spaces more than those without children. Parents report many more frequent visits to local parks, community swimming pools, and recreation centers than non-parents. They are also significantly more likely to have gone to their local library where children take classes, children and parents often make friends, and can share information about community events and opportunities.

Even if some of these community spaces remain open, opportunities for social engagement have been dramatically reduced or stripped out entirely. Corner markets that once served as community gathering places now function only primarily as mercantile exchanges: a place to buy goods. Playgrounds, which once allowed children and parents to roam freely and socialize, are now potential infection hotspots where parents try to stay at a safe distance and limit their children’s interactions with others. Coffee shops where people would gather to socialize, listen to music, and get their daily dose of caffeine were once the center of neighborhoods. Thanks to mobile-only ordering and drive thru pickup it’s still possible to get your caffeine fix, but coffee shops no longer serve as hub of neighborhood activity.

Sadly, outdoor community spaces, which are theoretically safer than indoor spaces, are being set up to discourage mingling among neighbors. Many farmer’s markets direct patrons in an orderly one-way procession through the array of stalls, limiting the number of people allowed to enter the space. Mask wearing and social distancing — critical parts of public health efforts to control the spread of Covid-19 — create additional hurdles for parents seeking a social outlet for their children because play and spontaneous, close interaction along with non-verbal facial cues — all critical to social development — are now effectively nonexistent.

Neighbors, once a key source of social support, are off limits as well because even if generalized social trust is on the rise, there is too much uncertainty about how careful members of others households have been. While most Americans report their neighbors have provided an important sense of community and a majority of parents say they would have felt comfortable having their neighbor watch their child in a pinch, that has regrettably changed with the pandemic. Fears of infection now preclude ad hoc childcare arrangements that once provided parents short-term flexibility.

Even if schools reopen on time, it’s unlikely that parents will feel completely comfortable sending their children there. Moreover, the risk of an outbreak is high. New research from South Korea found that children as young as 10 years of age can as effectively transmit the virus as adults.

Because of the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding school reopening, some parents are trying to start their own. The nation is seeing a rise of pandemic pods and micro-schools — cloistered instruction in small physical groups, funded and organized by parents. These groups vary in form — some appear to be virtual while others meet up in person — but the idea is that these pods bring children from a few families together to socialize, learn, and receive care. In some cases, parents take the lead in care and education, while others pool resources for tutors, teachers, and caregivers. This approach presumes that the families will be safe and careful, but it is no guarantee. Moreover, creating pods is not really possible for many families with limited resources or two working parents. While they may work for some, it is not a widespread solution for most Americans.

Separating ourselves from our community limits our opportunities to become infected, but it also reduces the social support available to us. What this means for parents is that they can no longer rely on the array of community services and spaces to ease the burden of full-time parenting. Parents are now required to do it all on their own. It takes a village to raise a child, but many Americans are still living in bunkers. The disruption of community life has been devastating to parents.

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