The WPS Parent’s Action Group was formed in order to assess the impact of Watertown Public School (WPS) policies, including school closures, on Watertown families.
We are extraordinarily privileged to live in a school district which cares about social equity and our little group of parents seeks to aid the school district in understanding the needs and realities of Watertown families through, among other things, innovative and nimble data analysis.
The survey issued this week in relation to the WPS early closures is part of a broader project concerning accountability and transparency for the school district in making decisions that may disparately affect families. The ultimate goal of these inquiries is to both understand the impact of decisions on families, as well as to imagine creative possibilities for supporting families.
Heat-Related Early School Closure Family Impact Study
Dr. Lisa Lucile Owens
January 8, 2021
WPS Parent’s Action Committee
While our survey addressing the family impacts of the recent early school closures is still open and gathering data, this communication shares some preliminary data.
On June 7 and 8, 2021, the Watertown Public School (WPS) district, as well as a number of other suburban school districts in eastern Massachusetts closed schools in the afternoons due to temperatures which reached 94 degrees Fahrenheit. This closure was first communicated to parents past 9:00 PM the night before the initial closure. As mask mandates at WPS schools are still in place, and the schools lack sufficient air conditioning, the school district made the decision to close school in the afternoon for all students.
Watertown is a diverse school district, with a median household income of $97,929 (Footnote 1) For more context, almost 10% of families in the Watertown School district have incomes at or below the poverty level, and almost 15% receive food stamps/SNAP benefits. (Footnote 2) Almost 35% of households in Watertown are run by a single parent, and approximately 25% of parents within the Watertown district have not attended college. (Footnote 3) A minority of parents are homeowners in our town, with 54% of parents in the Watertown district renting their homes. As well, the vast majority of parents in Watertown hold jobs, with over 85% in the labor force. (Footnote 4) In Wellesley, another nearby school district which similarly closed its schools in relation to the heat, only 13% of households are run by single parents, the median household income is almost twice that of Watertown, and 88% of households own their homes. (Footnote 5) In short, in comparison to other suburban towns peripheral to Boston, WPS families have a greater diversity of needs.
The requirement to find childcare or take leave from work may have a very different meaning for families with a parent who is a professional and can easily work from home, or has a dedicated stay-at-home parent. For families with one or both parents who work in hourly or precarious positions (such as uber drivers or instacart shoppers), taking leave can mean an income loss — which may translate to not being able to make the rent, not being able to buy enough food that week, or not being able to make a needed repair to the car.
This has been a particularly tough year for parents, especially those who may have already been struggling to make ends meet. According to several accounts, the number of parents (and especially Mothers) in the workforce dropped significantly following Covid-related school closures (Footnote 6). For those parents who were able to hold on to their jobs, asking for leave unexpectedly and for reasons which are not typical (i.e. heat related school closures) may have a negative effect on already strained relationships with employers. While an early release for children may only represent two hours “less” of school time, it also means cancellation of the after school program which working parents also rely on. Not to mention commuting time — all told, while an “early release” seems like no big deal to some, other parents are looking at a working day of only 3 hours (approximately 8:30 – 11:30) compared to more than 7 on a more typical day. Especially for families who work paycheck to paycheck, this time makes a difference.
According to preliminary analysis of our survey data, roughly 50% of parents who had to miss work to care for children due to the closures were worried about asking for leave from work. Similarly, for almost half of parents, leave taken from work was unpaid. Several said the leave they took in relation to the closure would affect their family’s vacation or leisure plans, and several parents also reported that the closures had a negative impact on their relationship with their employer.
Heat-related closures are new for WPS. Although only a handful of school days in the past few years have been as hot as June 6 and 7, schools were not closed at those times due to the heat. As well, the buildings have historically hosted students for summer school and a district-led camp in the summer months, ostensibly with several days of similar temperatures. While elevated heat is not ideal, it is not something unexpected. School closures related to the heat, however, are unexpected. Nonetheless, given the requirement for students to wear masks as a Covid-related precaution, special circumstances may indeed apply. Parent’s Action asks: Are there alternatives to these school closures and were they fully considered by WPS? For example, could students in hot classrooms be shifted to other spaces within the school? Or could attendance be made optional for the day so that families concerned about the heat could keep their children home while working parents without other childcare options could continue to send their children to school?
WPS must be accountable to families. For working families, who do not have a dedicated stay-at-home parent, they provide an important childcare function in addition to an educational one. Families rely on schools and schools promise to be a reliable resource for families. It would be inefficient to expect families to have a backup plan for childcare outside of the typical, i.e. children getting sick or snow days. The heat-related school closures on June 6 and 7 were without precedent. Parent’s Action asks for accountability from the school district in the context of school closures. Is the closure truly necessary? Have all alternatives to school closure been exhausted?
If you are a Watertown parent and have not yet participated in the WPS Parent’s Action survey on the family impacts of the recent early school closures, please do so here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/T59PMQL
The WPS Parent’s Action Committee is committed to addressing systemic inequality within the Watertown Public School system. Parent’s Action supports the mission of public schools to serve families across the social spectrum by engaging in innovative and nimble qualitative and quantitative data gathering and analysis. We aim to drive awareness and to develop study instruments, reports and innovative policy towards more just and equal communities. Parent’s Action is an independent initiative and not affiliated with any public school or district. Please visit us on the web at www.parentsaction.net.
1 National Center for Education Statistics, ACS School District Profile 2014-18. Retrieved June 9, 2021 (https://nces.ed.gov/Programs/Edge/ACSDashboard/2512180).
2 National Center for Education Statistics, ACS School District Profile 2014-18. Retrieved June 9, 2021 (https://nces.ed.gov/Programs/Edge/ACSDashboard/2512180).
3 National Center for Education Statistics, ACS School District Profile 2014-18. Retrieved June 9, 2021 (https://nces.ed.gov/Programs/Edge/ACSDashboard/2512180).
4 National Center for Education Statistics, ACS School District Profile 2014-18. Retrieved June 9, 2021 (https://nces.ed.gov/Programs/Edge/ACSDashboard/2512180).
5 National Center for Education Statistics, ACS School District Profile 2014-18. Retrieved June 9, 2021 (https://nces.ed.gov/Programs/Edge/ACSDashboard/2512270).
6 Kochhar, Rakesh. 2021. “Fewer Mothers and Fathers in U.S. Are Working Due to COVID-19 Downturn; Those at Work Have Cut Hours.” Pew Research Center. Retrieved June 9, 2021