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Working parents face continued chaos despite reopened schools

Kelly McCormick thought she’d be back on the job long ago, but the coronavirus pandemic continually finds ways to keep her home helping her two young children.

One day in December, her son’s Maryland school told her to pick up her 10-year-old immediately: He had been exposed to COVID-19 by a classmate who sat near him in a workgroup and at lunch. When she arrived at the school, she found other parents who had gotten the same midday call.

“That’s when I realized what an effect this has on parents,” she said in an interview with Stateline. “I never could have done this with my job. There are too many people depending on you to just drop everything and walk away like this.”

McCormick quit her job as a social worker in August 2020 to help her children with their virtual schooling. And like many parents, the suburban Olney, Maryland, mom thought school reopenings this year would free her to get back to her career. But that prospect has been delayed again and again as waves of variants have sent children home after classroom exposures or illnesses.

Similar situations are happening all over the country. A Stateline analysis of aJanuary U.S. Census Bureau poll found 6% of parents of children ages 5-11 were not working because they had to care for children not in school or day care. That hit as high as 13% in Illinois, where Chicago schools closed temporarily, and 14% in Idaho, where an Omicron surge combined with a flu outbreak to force school closings.

And federal data analyzed by Stateline shows that parents of small children have left the workforce in much higher numbers than other working adults during the pandemic.

In the last quarter of 2021, 6% fewer jobs were held by parents of children ages 5-12, both mothers and fathers, compared with the same period in 2019, while other prime-age workers were only 1% short of pre-pandemic job levels, according to a Stateline analysis of census numbers provided by ipums.org at the Institute for Social Research and Data Innovation at the University of Minnesota.

MomsRising, a web-based organization of mothers, is advocating for more paid family medical leave that would allow parents to stay home from work in emergencies such as a pandemic. Nine states and the District of Columbia have general paid family and medical leave laws, though they won’t take effect in Oregon until next year and in Colorado until 2024.

Delaware and Maryland are considering similar legislation. “This way moms can keep that connection to the workplace and all their benefits and also have these caregiving roles,” said Namatie Mansaray, senior director of workplace justice for MomsRising.

The state laws and proposals vary, but generally offer a set number of weeks of leave at a percentage of full pay, funded by insurance paid by the employer or employee.

The Maryland legislation failed last year after testimony from small businesses that it could worsen labor shortages for them. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce will oppose it again this year, CEO Mary Kane wrote in a February op-ed, because it wouldn’t give employers enough control.

“The employer has no ability to verify the need for leave, to challenge leave as fraudulent or abusive, or to take into account the impact of the leave on business operations,” Kane wrote.

Some parents feel their struggles disappeared from public consciousness when schools began reopening.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, at least everybody was on the same page and realized we were all in this terrible thing together. Now it feels like parents are alone in this. We’re forgotten,” said William Scarborough, a University of North Texas assistant professor who has a 3-year-old son in a pre-K program that’s often canceled. Children under 5 years old cannot yet be vaccinated, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

From December to mid-February, Scarborough faced at least one day a week without child care. “You get the email in the morning, and I’d be juggling meetings, moving things around, missing sleep,” said Scarborough, who co-authored with federal sociologist Christin Landivar a February study showing the effect of school closings on women in the workforce.

The study found that losing more days of school was associated with mothers leaving jobs, particularly in states such as Maryland where schools went mostly remote in 2020.

Even now, with schools open almost everywhere, daunting challenges remain for parents who must work.

“The care infrastructure that parents depend on is not fully restored,” said Landivar, the study’s main author and a sociologist and senior researcher at the U.S. Department of Labor, adding that mothers still take the brunt of child care challenges. “Mothers continue to take on additional caregiving responsibilities when schools close or child care is unavailable.”

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The issue is particularly tough on single parents who can’t work remotely.

Laurel Lamont, a grocery worker in Temecula, California, barely pays her bills and struggles to keep her 16-year-old son doing his homework when she’s not there to supervise him.

“My kid goes into his room to do homework, and he is playing games on his phone, and there’s very little I can do about it,” Lamont said. “I can’t take the devices away because he can’t do what he needs [for school] without them.”

Moms have shared their stories of frustration, venting to call-in “rage lines” and even attending primal scream events in response to school closing news.

“My frustration with this is at a boiling point. I cannot simply take off work when the school decides to close,” said Chelsea Kabakaba, a law school student in Eugene, Oregon, who works full time for a federal judge and often appears in court remotely via Zoom.

Her second-grade daughter had to stay home for 10 days recently to quarantine after an exposure, and the school has closed unpredictably for planning days. Her husband, a retired Marine, has had to postpone a second career to help with child care and driving when there aren’t enough buses.

Meanwhile in Maryland, McCormick’s 10- and 12-year-old sons haven’t stopped needing attention—from help with lessons when they’re forced home for illness or suspected exposure, to 2 p.m. carpool assignments when there aren’t enough school buses.

After her younger son’s December exposure, she had to arrange some of his schoolwork because a countywide remote math class meant for such cases was behind his in-person class.  

Her plans to go back to work have stayed on hold.

“We thought maybe last fall, and the delta [variant] came up. So then we thought January, but then omicron,” she said. “It’s really been wild.”

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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Despite school reopenings, it remains hard for parents of small children, especially mothers, to stay in the workforce.