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‘I’m barely clinging onto work’: Exhausted parents face another wave of school shutdowns

The latest uncertainties are creating new challenges for working parents and threatening to blunt the economic rebound

Latoya Hamilton, shown in the Fresh Meadows neighborhood of Queens on Jan. 6, deals with the challenge of keeping her special-needs child safe in group settings at school and balancing her own home and work life. (Johnny Milano for The Washington Post)
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Latoya Hamilton had just taken a job as a medical assistant when she got notice last week that her daughter’s school was going online temporarily. The single mother asked for time off. When it was denied, she did the only thing she could: quit.

A lack of child care had prompted Hamilton to resign once before early in the pandemic, when she left her $26-an-hour job at NYU Langone Health to care for her three school-aged children. But this time is different. She feels more alone, she said, and unsure of how to make do, both logistically and financially. Federal assistance has expired, and she has depleted her savings and maxed out her credit cards.

“I am completely by myself now,” said Hamilton, 41 and a resident of Queens who has two children, ages 5 and 12, in New York City public schools, and a 20-year-old daughter with special needs at the Lexington School for the Deaf. “My bills have to get paid, but I can’t just leave my children unattended at home. What am I going to do?”

The latest surge in coronavirus cases prompting school and day-care closures has thrust parents back into familiar terrain, trying to navigate work obligations with a changing patchwork of testing protocols, quarantines and a possible return to virtual schooling.

At least 5,225 schools were disrupted for at least part of this past week because of the pandemic, easily a record for the current school year, according to the data firm Burbio. Public schools in Atlanta and Detroit went completely virtual this week, while others, including in the D.C. suburbs of Montgomery County, Md., and Philadelphia, are making decisions on a school-by-school or class-by-class basis. Chicago Public Schools has shut down altogether because of failed union talks over coronavirus safety measures. And day cares around the country are closing for weeks at a time because of coronavirus outbreaks, worsening a long-simmering child-care crisis.

Those disruptions — and the cascading impact on working parents and their employers — threaten economic growth in uneven ways, economists say, with single mothers, low-income families and other economically vulnerable groups being most affected.

Working parents are stressed out and overwhelmed, given the third round of abject uncertainty in two years. But in a new twist, a tight labor market — with roughly 1.5 job openings for every unemployed worker — and difficulty finding and securing workers, particularly in service industries such as retail and hospitality, may end up giving some workers extra leverage in dealing with child-care issues.

“This round of potential school closures is hitting at a very different point than prior in the pandemic,” said Lauren Bauer, an economic studies fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We’re no longer in a world of fiscal relief to support households and businesses if they need to shut down, leaving families with fewer, if any, good choices.”

Many employers that made sweeping accommodations such as paid leave and teleworking arrangements early in the pandemic are scrambling to reintroduce those measures. Just 11 percent of Americans worked from home in November because of the coronavirus crisis, down from 35 percent at the beginning of the pandemic, according to Labor Department data.

Fueled by the pandemic, the child-care crisis is keeping moms out of work

Working mothers face the largest setbacks, Bauer said. Many have pulled back from work or taken additional leave to deal with school and day-care closures since the fall.

In interviews with The Washington Post, working parents said they feel like they’ve exhausted goodwill at their companies over the past two years. They feel worn out and are wrestling with the reality that sporadic school closures could continue for years. Despite the tight job market, lower-income parents in particular said they had far fewer options.

“It’s a whole new level of stress for working parents,” said Rasheed Malik, the director of early childhood policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “It’s especially affecting lower-wage and in-person workers in a serious way that could lead to a lot of kids just having to be left at home or in less safe caregiving arrangements than what parents want.”

Hourly service workers with young children reported disproportionately frequent disruptions early in the pandemic, with 60 percent of families experiencing job losses and 45 percent taking on additional caregiving duties, according to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in October 2020. And child-care concerns remain among the top reasons people say they had not worked in the preceding seven days, according to data from a U.S. Census Bureau survey in October.

Lauren Cunningham said that sending her two children back to day care now “feels like feeding them to the wolves.”

But she has little choice: Cunningham works in advertising sales, and her husband does in-person work for an HVAC company. Both of their children, ages 9 months and 3 years, were home for most of December after her baby tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I feel like I’m just barely clinging onto work as it is, and I cannot get anything done if they’re here,” she said. “Even when you’re in a different room, you hear their feet running around, you hear the baby crying through the walls. I cannot get work done if they’re here.”

Cunningham kept her 3-year-old daughter at home for nearly a year and half at the beginning of the pandemic and says she can’t imagine doing it again. Once she re-enrolled her in day care, her daughter cried for months at drop-off and stopped sleeping through the night. “She’s finally running into school and starting to get excited to see her friends,” Cunningham said. “We can’t start all over again.”

Many moms left the workforce during the pandemic. For some, going back isn’t so simple.

Mary Whiteside, an appellate attorney in Los Angeles, is back to a familiar routine: Watching her 2-year-old during the day and catching up on work late at night.

Her son’s day care shut down last week after a staffer came down with covid-19. Her older son, 5, is in preschool, and she worries that it is just a matter of time before classes go online. Meanwhile, her partner, who teaches at a private school, is working in-person.

“It’s frustrating and stressful and just so uncertain,” Whiteside, 44, said. “It’s really hard when I don’t have any child care or family nearby. Frankly, my work suffers. I make more mistakes.”

In Louisville, Sofía Marsano, a clinical psychologist at a hospital, said she is dreading a possible return to virtual schooling. For much of the pandemic, her two children — now 11 and 14 — were at home alone navigating remote classes while she and her husband, who works as a lab manager and teaches at the local community college, went in for their shifts.

“We minimized their time alone, but with me working in person, my husband working in person, there wasn’t much else we could do,” Marsano, 46, said. She left a microwaveable lunch in the fridge and did her best to check in. The biggest challenge was making sure her children were paying attention to virtual classes instead of watching YouTube videos or scrolling through Instagram on their Chromebooks.

“It was a struggle to keep them motivated when I was at work every day,” Marsano said. “I really don’t want to go through it again. I fear they won’t learn as well if we go back to virtual learning.”

Mounting omicron infections force businesses to scramble, threatening economic recovery

Some employers say they’re beginning to make additional accommodations to retain workers who are juggling additional child-care responsibilities. Ivy & Sage, a specialty retail store in Mesa, Ariz., has doubled the number of staffers on its payroll in recent weeks, to 22, to make sure there are enough employees to cover for those who need to take time off to deal with school closures.

Record-high labor market turnover and a shortage of workers is further complicating the picture for employers. Some 4.5 million workers quit or changed jobs in November, the Labor Department said this week, setting a record.

At Felt Chicago, a women’s clothing boutique, co-owner Holly Grannan said that retaining the store’s two employees has been her top priority through the pandemic. When schools shut down in 2020, the store added two desks in the back for a stylist’s elementary-school-age children, who accompanied her to work for months. Now, with the city’s schools closing again, “the kids are going to be back in the store,” she said.

“We didn’t want our employee to say, ‘I can’t work here anymore,’” Grannan said. “She is great at what she does, and it would be difficult to replace her.”

And although mothers and fathers alike pulled back from work at the beginning of the pandemic to handle child-care duties, the gender gap has grown in the months since. Mothers have burned through more leave — paid and unpaid — at far higher rates than other workers during the pandemic, according to Misty Heggeness, an economist at the Census Bureau.

“As we tried to get back to normal, dads started returning to work,” she said. “But moms kept dealing with the chaos of virtual learning and school quarantines. Some quit their jobs, but a far greater number kept trying to make things work while staying attached to the labor force.”

Virtual schooling has largely forced moms, not dads, to quit work. It will hurt the economy for years.

Roughly 1.4 million fewer women were working in December 2021 than were working two years earlier, according to Labor Department data. Among those most likely to have quit for child-care reasons were mothers in low-wage jobs without telecommuting options, in industries such as retail and hospitality that have been struggling to attract and keep workers, Heggeness said.

‘We’re back to panicking’: Moms are hit hardest with camps and day cares closing again

Back in Queens, Hamilton, the single mother who quit her job last week, is taking advantage of the tight labor market and preparing to start yet another job, administering coronavirus tests for 12 hours a day at a local clinic. But she isn’t sure how long she’ll be able to hang on. It’s still unclear whether her daughter’s school will reopen Monday or whether her other children will remain in the classroom.

“I’m just thinking: Okay, when?” she said. “When is the school going to call me saying my kid has been exposed? When are they going to shut down? When will I have to stay home again?”

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.