Parents with jobs know they have dodged one bullet of the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic — they still have paychecks coming in, unlike 40 million unemployed Americans.
But with schools and day cares closed, they’re having to cut or change shifts to look after children while still getting the work done.
Eve Johnston, a nurse in Framingham, Massachusetts, used to have the scheduling sorted. Her younger son would go to day care five days a week while her older child was in kindergarten and then afterschool care.
“We had everything working just right,” she told CNN.
But with the children at home, she’s been trying to get weekend and night shifts so one parent is always home. Her husband finds himself taking calls early and late as he connects with colleagues on the East and West coasts.
With coronavirus cases trending down in Massachusetts, the Johnstons hoped for some relief. But so many other parents have been so desperate to secure childcare as the state lifts some restrictions, it has been hard to find an available program for their boys.
“It’s not sustainable,” Johnston said of her current situation. “We are hoping that there’ll be a world with school or daycare at some point, but in the meantime I accepted a position where I work every Saturday and Sunday night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.”
Cheryl Lekousi reopened her in-home daycare in nearby Needham, Massachusetts, when she got state approval. She has to limit the number of children, provide appropriate protective equipment and implement strict hygiene.
She’s replaced old carpeting with vinyl flooring and bought boxes to place items for cleaning and to store masks for herself.
She’s also made plans to help keep young children socially distant from each other.
“I went through my toys and I bought a few other things that are play-alone toys,” she said. “I’ve got a little toy car over there. Little children will try hard to fit two of them in, but I tell them now that’s a one-person car.”
Lekousi has also taken another look at games where children don’t have to be so close. “I don’t do ‘Ring around the Rosie’ but we’re doing ‘Follow the Leader,'” she said.
Even with these preparations and investment, the future is uncertain for Lekousi, 61, who worries about her own family’s health and whether she can sustain the state-mandated smaller client base.
“My husband and I did have a serious discussion of ‘Do I need to retire?’ which would mean downsizing the house,” she said. “I really didn’t want this to put me into retirement. I want to do that on my own terms.”
While schools are working out how and when to reopen for their students, younger children may present another issue. Their parents may not be able to find any child care at all.
An analysis by the Center for American Progress found the pandemic could ultimately lead to the loss of nearly 4.5 million childcare slots. That could leave employees unable to return to full-time work and hamper desires to get the economy fully open again.
In the spring, Congress allocated $3.5 billion in childcare aid as part of the CARES Act. But Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, a Democrat, said that is a drop in the bucket, and she has introduced a measure to increase funding to $50 billion.
DeLauro said the pandemic has shown “how backwards” the US is in terms of prioritizing affordable, accessible childcare for families who want to go to work.
“What is the plan for getting people back to work?” she asked. “Part of that plan has to do with how you deal with how they take care of their children.”
Her bill is backed in the Senate by fellow Democrat, Washington Sen. Patty Murray.
“We all want our economy to open. I assure everyone, if people can’t get childcare, they cannot go back to work,” Murray said.
Even when school places are guaranteed and where buildings are supposed to be open, parents are having to think hard about what to do. And recent spikes of Covid-19 cases in states like Texas and Florida are exacerbating the situation.
Meridith Smith, a healthcare worker in Jacksonville, Florida, has balanced her work with her husband and his job since their sons’ elementary school closed. But they had planned on sending them back for the new school year.
“We were both eager to get our children back into some sort of routine and understanding that we’ll have more normal work hours,” she said. “We’re in July and we’re a month out from school opening and know that, with cases on the rise, we can only hope that this spike will come to an end in Florida and schools and work can resume, with some caution obviously, but, without the risk exposure.”
She said the stress of having to make tough decisions was a little eased by knowing how many parents were in the same situation.
“We have to understand the difficult, and almost sometimes impossible, situation that parents are put in — of returning to work and not having childcare or having to put their children at an increased risk of exposure by putting them in childcare,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any longterm solution.”