Above all, issues around managing child care and work that had long been considered private family matters were suddenly out in the open, turning the needs of working parents into a subject that resonated in conference rooms and state capitals across the country.
The potential implications were profound: Not only could the pandemic help recalibrate the answer to a question like, “Who picks up a sick child from school?” but it could also radically alter whether workplaces look askance at the parent who takes time away from work to do to so. More fundamentally, any number of policy ideas that the pandemic inspired, if realized, could make it easier for working parents, especially women, to balance work and child care, as well as increase gender equality at work and at home and upend entrenched gender norms about caregiving.
“It just feels like an Overton window, where you have increased public dialogue but also you have public will to really change and reflect on women’s experiences in the work force,” C. Nicole Mason, the president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said in an interview this summer.
Roughly half of mothers with children under 18 were employed full-time last year. For white-collar women and women with office jobs, who were more likely to benefit from increased work flexibility, the possible reforms were uniquely promising.
But the optimism is fading, partially because of Washington. The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress indicated early in the year that federal paid family and medical leave was a priority in the president’s domestic spending package — but the plan was pared down from 12 weeks to four weeks, then dropped entirely from the framework President Biden announced on Thursday.
“As you can see, the window is closing,” Dr. Mason said this past week.
Now, as the pandemic recedes and everyday life begins to return to normal, some working mothers are worried that nothing much will change.
“People are finally seeing how important child care is in our society,” said Kristen Shockley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia who studies the intersection of work and family life. “But is that going to translate into a way that our society values caregiving? I’m less optimistic about that.”
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As a freelance photographer, I was contacted by The New York Times in February to create a series of portraits of 15 mothers in Los Angeles who had been forced out of their jobs because of the pandemic.
I had become a mother during the pandemic, so this story struck a particular chord with me. I had lost some work as the coronavirus shut down the country, and it scared me to begin motherhood while record numbers of women were leaving the work force.
As soon as I had my heart set on taking the assignment, my editor, Crista Chapman, and I realized this would be difficult to execute. I was working in Florida for a few months and would need at least a week in California, and my doctor advised against being away from my breastfeeding infant for multiple days. Also, Los Angeles County was just beginning to recover from a devastating wave of Covid-19, so the initial plan for me to photograph everyone at their homes or in an open studio space was scrapped.
I thought I was going to have to pass on the assignment all together, which felt particularly ironic. But I didn’t want to give up, so I decided to get creative and pitched remote portrait sessions with the women. I knew these might be a little trickier because all of our subjects were busy moms without a lot of time to deal with technology. So, to ensure I could pull this off, I did a practice session with my sister-in-law and her kids. I could use those images as a step-by-step guide for all the sessions, and Crista signed off on the idea.
I emailed and called each woman with the general plan for the photo shoot and then jumped right into the work.
I set up a video call, usually with my daughter on my lap, so a different kind of intimacy was quickly developed. We could relate to each other as mothers, which broke any awkwardness that might be felt from FaceTiming with a stranger. My daughter would giggle, their child would shove a stuffed animal on camera, and we would share stories about what we had been through over the past year.
While we chatted, I would have each woman take me on a tour of her space and show me anything that reminded her of life before Covid. This typically took about 30 minutes while I figured out lighting and composition. Once we decided on the space, I would have her set her camera up on whatever she could find — a chair, bookshelf, laptop stand or kitchen table. Then I would have her sit with her kids.
The women would set up the camera while I gave directions. Sometimes I had a child, husband or translator hold the phone and help me out. I was always clicking the capture button.
A big part of my process is watching body language and documenting, with minimal direction, how people occupy space. To create organic, intimate images that tell a story, I usually have to share physical space with the people I photograph. So, remote shoots introduced a totally new dynamic.
I typically work to create images with a sense of familiarity and closeness, and by creating remote photos this way, I was able to go (virtually) into these women’s homes and capture their daily life with their children in a new way, creating really intimate portraits that were much more immediate than they would have been had we done the photos in person as planned.
I wanted to capture the feeling many of us have experienced communicating with family and friends through our phones and computers this past year, and this approach provided a different level of engagement.
Since the shoot, I’ve continued working while raising our daughter. I think of those women often and wonder how they all feel as life in Los Angeles is opening back up. I don’t take for granted the work that I’ve gotten, and I hope we all collectively remember the women who are still at home, still taking care of the kids with their lives on hold.
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A decade ago, after a rained-out Thanksgiving desert camping trip with our five kids, my wife, Kristin, and I headed to the nearest available lodging, the now-shuttered Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. Watching our brood eat their Thanksgiving meal as cigarette smoke and slot-machine clamor wafted over their cheeseburgers, Kristin and I locked eyes with an unspoken message: We are the world’s worst parents.
We have avoided Las Vegas with the kids since then, but an aborted drive to slushy Aspen this April with three of our heirs caused us to pause in Vegas. At the time, the city was just awakening from its Covid slumber, with mandatory masks and limited capacity in most indoor spaces, traffic so light that cars were drag-racing down the normally packed Strip, and a lingering, troubling question over the whole place: Will this reopening really be safe?
But extraordinary things have been happening during this slumber, and while we were only going to spend one night there, we had so much fun that we ended up staying four. At first we spent most of our time in the relative safety of the outdoors, but then we started to relax along with the rest of the city, drowning our hands beneath the ubiquitous liquid sanitizer dispensers, masking up and heading indoors.
I knew things had shifted in Sin City when, while maneuvering the minivan through some seemingly dicey neighborhood between Downtown and the Strip, I noted on the back alley wall of a hair salon a striking mural depicting the cult outsider artist Henry Darger’s seven Vivian Girl warriors in their trademark yellow dresses. What were the Vivian Girls doing here?
Makers & Finders — and wandered along Spring Mountain Road, the hub of the city’s Chinatown, rapidly expanding westward. In the midcentury mecca of East Fremont Street, a $350 million investment by the tech titan Tony Hsieh, who died last year, has produced a boulevard of fantastical art installations, restored buildings and a sculptural playground surrounded by stacked shipping containers converted to boutiques and cafes, all guarded by a giant, fire-spewing, steel praying mantis.
“Vegas is going through a cultural renaissance,” a former member of the city’s Arts Commission, Brian “Paco” Alvarez, told me in a recent telephone interview. “A lot of the local culture that comes out of a city with two million unusually creative people didn’t stop during the pandemic.”
Area15, which opened in February in a mysterious, airport-hanger-size, windowless building two miles west of the Strip. Imagine an urban Burning Man mall (indeed, many of the sculptures and installations came from the annual arts festival held in northern Nevada), with some dozen tenants providing everything from virtual reality trips to nonvirtual ax throwing, accompanied by Day-Glo color schemes, electronic music, giant interactive art installations and guests flying overhead on seats attached to ceiling rails. Face masks are currently only mandatory in Area15 for self-identified unvaccinated people, though some of the attractions within still require face masks for everyone. Everywhere, we encountered the constant presence of cleaning attendants spraying and wiping surfaces.
Blue Man Group, who was bringing his creative magic to Area15 in the form of a “Psychedelic Art House Meets Carnival Funhouse” called Wink World (adult tickets start at $18). Wink World is centered around six rooms with infinity mirror boxes reflecting Slinkys, plasma balls, fan spinners, Hoberman Spheres and ribbons dancing to an ethereal soundtrack of electronic music, rhythmic chanting and heavy breathing.
“I worked on these installations for six years in my living room in New York,” Mr. Wink told me. “I was trying to evoke psychedelic experiences without medicine.”
My unmedicated children were transfixed, as if these familiar toys frolicking into eternity were totems to their own personal nirvanas. I’ve never seen them stand so still in front of an art exhibit.
Omega Mart (adult admissions start at $45, face mask and temperature check mandatory), the biggest attraction in the complex, lines one side of the complex’s atrium and seemed — at first — to provide a banal respite from Area15’s sensory overload. Along the sale aisles I found Nut Free Salted Peanuts, Gut Monkey Ginger Ale and cans of Camels Implied Chicken Sop.
Meow Wolf (the name derived from pulling two random words from a hat during their first meeting), Omega Mart is an amalgamation of some 325 artists’ creations tied together by disparate overlapping story lines which one can follow — or not.
For a short time, I tracked the story of the takeover of Omega Mart’s corporate headquarters by a hilariously manipulative New Agey daughter, and then got sidelined into the tale of a teen herbalist leading a rebellion to something else. I have no idea what I experienced other than that Brian Eno composed the music to one of the installations. None of my kids could explain what they experienced either, other than something mind-expanding. If it wasn’t for dinner, we might still be in there.
Raku. Step behind an understated white backlit sign and you enter an aged wood interior of an intimate restaurant that you might find off a Kyoto alley. We slid into the family-style tables behind the main dining room and commenced to feast. There’s a $100 tasting menu if you are feeling adult, but my tribe ordered cream-like tofu with dried fish, foie gras skewers and a dozen other items.
Chinatown became our go-to-spot for snacks and boba tea between adventures. A favorite spot became Pho 90, a low-key Vietnamese cafe with outstanding noodle dishes and exquisitely layered banh mi sandwiches for picnics in the wild.
Red Rock Canyon, 17 miles west of the Strip, is like walking into a Road Runner cartoon with a Technicolor ballet of clashing tectonic formations. We grabbed our admittedly reluctant brood on a 2.4-mile, round-trip hike on the Keystone Thrust Trail through a series of gullies until we emerged above epic white limestone cliffs jutting through the ocher-colored mountains. Here we had our Vietnamese picnic overlooking the monolithic casinos in the distance.
Rail Explorers has set up rail bike tours on the abandoned tracks leading to the Hoover Dam construction site. We booked a sunset tour (from $85 to $150 for a tandem quad bike). After some quick instruction, we, along with three dozen other visitors, climbed into an 800-pound, four-person Korean-made bike rig and, giving the group ahead of us a three-minute head start for some space, started peddling.
Our route was along four miles of desert track gently sloping into a narrowing canyon pass. As we effortlessly peddled at 10 miles per hour, we noticed that the spikes holding down the railroad ties were often crooked or missing. “I bet these were all driven in by hand,” my teenage son, Cody, a history buff, noted.
In the enveloping dusk, we glimpsed shadows moving along the sagebrush: bighorn sheep, goats and other critters emerging for their nocturnal wanderings. But the most surreal sight was at the end of the ride, where a giant backlit sign for a truck stop casino appeared over a desert butte — Vegas was beckoning us back, but now we welcomed the summons. Here we were, peddling into the sunset, feeling more athletic, cool and (gasp!) enlightened than when we first rolled into Vegas four days ago. Oh what good parents we were!
“The moniker of ‘Sin City’ is totally wrong,” Mr. Alvarez told me, “if you know where to look.”
Not all teenagers long for the vaccine. Many hate getting shots. Others say that because young people often get milder cases of Covid, why risk a new vaccine?
Patsy Stinchfield, a nurse practitioner who oversees vaccination for Children’s Minnesota, has stark evidence that some cases in young people can be serious. Not only have more children with Covid been admitted to the hospital recently, but its intensive care unit also has Covid patients who are 13, 15, 16 and 17 years old.
The F.D.A.’s new authorization means all those patients would be eligible for the shots, she noted. “If you can prevent your child ending up in the I.C.U. with a safe vaccine, why wouldn’t you ?” she said.
Mr. Quesnel, the East Hartford, Conn., superintendent, said the most powerful message for reaching older adolescents would probably appeal just as much to younger ones. Rather than focusing on the fact that the shot will protect them, he said, they seize on the idea that it will keep them from having to quarantine if they are exposed.
“They’re not so afraid of the health care dangers from Covid but the social losses that come along with it,” he said, adding that 60 percent of his district’s seniors, or about 300 students, got their first dose at a mass vaccination site run by Community Health Center on April 26. “Some of our greatest leverage right now is that social component — ‘You won’t be quarantined.’”
Michael Jackson of North Port, Fla., can’t wait for his 14-year-old son, Devin, to get the vaccine. During the past year, he said, his son’s beloved Little League games went on hiatus and the family had to suspend their regular Sunday suppers with grandparents And Devin, an eighth grader, had to quarantine three times after being exposed to Covid.
Braylon Dedmon was 3 days old when his mother, Talasheia, was offered $1,000 to open a college savings account in his name.
“I was like, ‘What?’” Ms. Dedmon recalled. Her skeptic’s antennae tingled. “I was a little scared.” Was this a scam?
It wasn’t. The offer was the beginning of a far-reaching research project begun in Oklahoma 14 years ago to study whether creating savings accounts for newborns would improve their graduation rates and their chances of going to college or trade school years later.
A few weeks after that initial conversation in 2007, the first statement arrived, showing $1,000 in Braylon’s name. “I was shocked,” said Ms. Dedmon, who now lives in Muskogee. “They started sending me statements every three months, and have been sending me them since then.”
Research about the Oklahoma project published this month by the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, which created SEED OK, found that families that had been given accounts were more college-focused and contributed more of their own money than those that hadn’t been. And the effects are strongest among low-income families.
The approach breaks with most social policy programs created over the last half-century, which focus on income supplements. Child savings accounts, by contrast, concentrate on accumulating assets over the long term.
Michael Sherraden, the founder of the center at Washington University, said the idea was to give everyone a stake — an investment — in the future. Benefits of the program extend not just to bank accounts but also to behavior. Households with the seed money — especially poorer ones with parents who did not attend college — have greater expectations about higher education, are more optimistic, have lower rates of depression and save more.
College savings accounts known as 529 plans, which restrict withdrawals and grow tax-free, are used by only a tiny share of American households, mostly in the upper reaches of the income ladder.
Assets and the Poor,” has been pushing for savings accounts, also known as development accounts, that would automatically be opened for every child born in the United States. Canada, Israel, South Korea and Singapore have established versions of the idea.
“We need to create structures to enable people to accumulate assets over the long term,” Mr. Sherraden said. He argues that a universal program is necessary to sustain political support, but that it would nonetheless deliver disproportionate gains at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
“You will reduce the difference in the gap between the highest and lowest group over time,” he said.
In Maine, the private Harold Alfond Foundation started offering every child born in the state a $500 grant in 2009. Mr. Alfond, who founded the Dexter Shoe Company before selling it to Warren E. Buffett, had been writing a $500 check to each of his newborn grandchildren.
California has allocated $25 million for a similar program.
Rhode Island and Nevada are among the states that have established child development account programs. There are several other programs of varying scope and size across the United States, according to the nonprofit group Prosperity Now. Several programs include incentives and subsidies for lower-income families, which are disproportionately Black and Latino.
Automatic enrollment in a saving program, with the ability to opt out, turns out to have a much higher participation rate than relying on individuals to take the initiative. In the first years of the Maine program, when families had to open accounts themselves, participation never rose above 50 percent. In 2013, the Alfond Foundation switched to automatic enrollment, and since then, pretty much every newborn in the state has gotten an account.
William Elliott III, a professor of social work at the University of Michigan and a co-author of “Making Education Work for the Poor,” said knowledge about how to administer savings accounts and their impact had jumped over the last decade.
“It’s one of the best delivery systems” to help low-income children build assets and direct them toward college, Mr. Elliott said. He added that there was more rigorous data on the positive impact of child savings accounts than there was on student loans, government Pell grants and free college.
“A savings account for a low-income kid means a lot more to them than it does for a wealthy kid,” Mr. Elliott said, and establishing it early can transform expectations about the future.
Kandynace Boyd, who lives in Oklahoma City, hasn’t been able to contribute any additional money to her son Manuel’s account. She works part time in an acute care facility and is struggling to keep up with bills. But she said Manuel, 13, was already talking about going to culinary school.
“He’s got nearly $2,000 in it,” she said of the account. “I wish I could do it for my other two kids.”
In a study by the RAND Corporation, “Remote Learning Is Here to Stay,” 58 out of 288 district administrators — roughly 20 percent — said their school system had already started an online school, was planning to start one or was considering doing so as a postpandemic offering.
“This is hardly a panacea or a silver bullet for public schooling,” said Heather Schwartz, a senior policy researcher at RAND who directed the study. But, she added, “there is a minority of parents, a minority of students and even a minority of teachers for whom virtual schooling is the preferred mode.”
Yet a surge of online schools comes with risks. It could normalize remote learning approaches that have had poor results for many students, education researchers said. It could also further divide a fragile national education system, especially when many Asian, Black and Latino families have been wary of sending their children back to school this year.
“My fear is that it will lead to further fracturing and fragmentation,” said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
Districts said they were simply responding to demand from parents and children who want to stick with remote learning — some because of student health issues, some because of concerns about bullying or discrimination in their school, and some who just prefer the convenience of learning at home.
Districts that fail to start online schools could lose students — along with government education funding — to virtual academies run by neighboring districts, companies or nonprofits, administrators said. To pay for the new online offerings, some districts said, they are using federal coronavirus relief funds or shifting resources from other programs.
Online schools began opening in the 1990s, some run by states or districts and others by private companies or nonprofit charter management organizations. But until recently, they played a niche role in many states.
“Covid really happened so suddenly at this time last year that states and the Centers for Disease Control didn’t issue guidance to operate quickly,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “A large proportion of camp parents intended to send their kids but didn’t because they weren’t comfortable.”
Nearly all camps made it through the last year with a combination of federal assistance, donations and bank loans. This year, many have reported that demand is back up to prepandemic levels, Mr. Rosenberg said, but are limiting spaces to make sure they comply with health protocols.
Jon Deren, co-owner and director of Camp Manitou, a sleep-away camp in Maine for boys, said he was able to operate last summer on a reduced schedule with fewer campers. He will continue to operate this summer with 90 percent of the campers but 100 percent of the staff to maintain Covid-19 safeguards. Spots for most age groups have been full since the fall, he said.
“Pre-Covid, camp was a lot about fun and getting outside and playing and all the activity,” Mr. Deren said. “As we’ve all worked through technology this past year, the importance of camp has been highlighted as being a tech-free place where kids can be happy. Parents want their kids to have fun, given the lack of fun and isolation their kids have had.”
The price for summer camps varies widely. The average for an independent nonprofit day camp is $413 a week, according to the camp association’s data. It’s $805 at a for-profit camp and roughly $300 for a national nonprofit camp, like the ones run by the Y.M.C.A. An overnight camp averages $1,962 a week for an independent nonprofit group, $1,468 for the for-profit version and $680 for those run by organizations like the Y.M.C.A.
Most camps, though, offer discounts for multiple weeks. Camp Manitou costs $14,350 for the full seven weeks — about $2,000 a week — but $8,650, or about $2,500 a week, for a half-session.
In a report in February, the camp association, working with the University of Utah, found that the majority of parents whose children had participated in camp before the pandemic said their children had less physical activity last summer without the structure of camp. They were more apt to spend their days on the computer or watching television than playing outside.