In September, the Flagstaff Unified School District (FUSD) closed the entire district in response to a ransomware attack. I was certainly surprised this kind of attack could disable the district to the degree that is apparently done- every school was closed and 11,000+ student stayed home. While I know my child has been taught to shelter in place in case of a school shooting, school cybersecurity has not been on my endless list of things to worry about.
Of course, we want our children to be safe and we want our school districts to take whatever precautions they can to ensure students’ safety. I love and appreciate educators and I am deeply committed to public schools.
At the same time, I am a parent of an FUSD kid and a full-time working mom. As we scrambled to figure out the closure days, I have been tuned in to how the closures have particularly impacted working parents.
For families with single parents, two working parents, those without local family, any change of plans when it comes to school and childcare can be stressful. The typical school schedule, with summer vacation and winter break (and fall break and spring break and holidays and teacher in-service days and half days) already requires a patchwork of fixes for kids who are too young to stay home alone. Toss in the 5 snow days factored into the FUSD calendar and whatever nature throws at us in a given winter… and figuring it out can be overwhelming.
My husband and I both have jobs that afford us paid vacation and sick time. And there are two of us. If we have to pay for extra care, while not budgeted, it will not break us. While we do not have local family support, we make it work- but even in our very fortunate circumstance, it is a major stressor.
For families without paid leave time (or not enough- Flagstaff employers must give 25 or 40 hours of paid sick time annually depending on the size of the company. So at best that sick time may cover the built-in snow days, forget about actual sick days for parent or child. And that doesn’t apply to employers outside the city limits,) parents can be in an impossible situation of choosing between their jobs- or groceries if they pay for extra care- and their children. Of course, their children’s well-being is also tied up in their job, providing for their family is only possible if they’re working.
While I am in no position to weigh in on the closure itself, I have a few takeaways from this experience for parents and schools.
If you are a school or a district and it is possible you will need to close- tell parents ASAP. In Flagstaff, we first learned of the closure at 5:40 pm the first day. Then there was no further public communication until 5:10 pm the following evening, announcing another day’s closure. Is this the very soonest possible either of these announcements could have been made? I don’t know. But if it was not, that’s a problem. Parents were not able to contact their employers and not able to make arrangements with local alternatives to be assured they had coverage the next day. Even an announcement during business hours letting parents know closure is possible would help parents.
Unlike a snow day, when we usually get an inkling it might be coming, something like this can apparently pop out of a gorgeous September day. It is worth having conversations with friends and classmates’ families about plans if something funky happens. We ended up arranging a kind of share with another family, so each set of parents only had to miss partial workdays and were able to plug some gaps with a babysitter.
Like Everything, We’re in this Together.
As parents, instead of criticizing others in a bind, help out! Do you stay at home? Or are you staying home because of the closure? Offer to watch someone else’s kids. Also, just take a second to consider people in different situations. Many families do not have a relative to step in or extra money for unexpected care or time to take from work. Some kids have special needs and cannot just be dropped off at a new place. Recognize that other families may face different challenges. Be compassionate and be a helper. And schools, a resource list of places available to take kids during unexpected closure released with the announcement would go a long way toward both helping families and making them feel supported.
Overall, I am hoping this on the other side of this experience can start a discussion in our community about the role of school and the challenges families face. There is a cost to children and families when there is no school, figuratively and literally. If we were able to improve road safety, might we have fewer snow days? Do extended breaks make sense in our modern age, especially when we know that kids experience “summer fade,” losing ground academically, and this disproportionately affects students from low-income backgrounds? How can our community help our schools stay safe and secure, against both threats old and new? And how can our schools support total student success, which includes supporting families?