Parents worry about finding, paying for child care with coronavirus-related school reopening models
Hartford Courant |
Aug 30, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Middle schoolers try out their lockers on the first day back to school at John F. Kennedy Middle School Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Southington. (Kassi Jackson / Hartford Courant)
Like many parents in Connecticut, Amy Provost is facing a dual dilemma as school reopens: needing someone to watch her kids and not being able to afford it. An irregular schedule due to a hybrid model of remote and in-person learning makes finding child care challenging. And she wonders whether the current schedule will continue or if the coronavirus will upend things yet again.
“I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I’m working at half capacity as it is. I can’t afford to pay money out on child care because I’m not making enough, but I can’t add jobs until I get child care,” said Provost, who lives in Burlington. “Will this affect me just in September or the rest of the school year?”
On top of that, the state’s child care capacity is 44% lower than it was pre-COVID, according to Beth Bye, commissioner of the state Office of Early Childhood. “Even before COVID, we were short 50,000 places for infants and toddlers,” Bye said. More than five months since the pandemic started racing through Connecticut, many child care centers haven’t reopened. Those that have reopened are working at reduced capacity.
School is starting in just a few weeks, but in a different way than any year before. Most school districts are implementing distance learning and hybrid scheduling. Both paradigms will keep kids out of classrooms more than in previous years, meaning parents will need more child care than ever before.
“There isn’t capacity for all of these children. Schools are the biggest suppliers of child care in our state. Schools are part of the child care infrastructure whether that’s how they view themselves or not. That is the reality of modern life in the United States,” Bye said. “If schools are not open, the industry has not been built up to support something that has not been there before.”
In an Aug. 24 news conference, Gov. Ned Lamont said “I think a lot of parents are going to find themselves in a bind.”
Towns that are going full in-school learning have had pushback from parents and teachers who worry that schools will become infection clusters. Parents in towns that choose distance or hybrid learning have another problem: what to do when the full-day school schedule they rely on to work falls apart.
“I don’t think we can underestimate the amount of stress this is putting on families,” Bye said. “How are they supposed to keep working, pay the mortgage, feed the kids? How are we supposed to keep doing this? Everyone is at their wit’s end.
“I think parents have done a herculean job making it from March until now. But the dam is broken. It’s, ‘Oh my goodness, we can’t do this anymore.‘”
Last June, fourth-grader Sammiayah Thompson and her brother third-grader Nehemiah Thompson of Hartford use laptops for distance learning. Parents face concerns about child care as a new school year approaches filled with uncertainty about in-person, distance or hybrid learning. (Jessica Hill/AP)
Distance learning has become the bane of many parents’ existence since mid-March. In theory, all it requires is a computer and an internet connection to link up students and their teachers. But in practice, adults in the home must monitor most kids’ progress or those kids won’t make any progress, and even students who are strongly self-motivated can’t be left at home alone.
Hybrid schedules combine distance learning and in-school classes with reduced capacity. Districts who go hybrid have split student bodies into two “cohorts.” In some districts, Cohort A goes to school two days a week and Cohort B two other days a week, with one day for deep cleaning. In other districts, Cohort A goes for a full week and then Cohort B for the next full week, with deep cleaning on weekends.
In either scheme, kids aren’t physically in school for many days, though “70% of households with children 0 to 11 need child care in order to work,” Bye said.
Through the summer, day care centers and camps have done well in preventing the spread of the virus while operating with one cohort, Bye said, but shifting kids between child care and schools increases exposure to the virus. “As families use them for child care out of the schools, it’s children back and forth between different cohorts. So they’re really going to have to be extra cautious about the health guidance and looking for any signs of illness before children walk in each day.”
Bye said the most worrisome days are those “deep cleaning” days, when not half, but all, children in a town will need child care. “What happens on the days when everyone is off?”
For many parents, the key issue is money. Even if child care can be found, will it break the family budget? This issue is especially urgent if the pandemic has resulted in a loss of work.
When the pandemic started, Provost’s house-cleaning business lost many clients. Her girlfriend works full time, but child care still will be a financial burden. She is weighing her options.
“My mom could come over and watch the kids. But that’s never a good option. My mom is old, and I have three kids under 9. She has a hard time with that. Then there’s the risk of her age with the virus,” she said.
So Provost is looking at day care. “It’s going to be expensive,” she said. “We’re already struggling with a huge financial blow. Now we’ll have to be paying for child care we never had to pay for before.”
Kris Campbell of Middletown owns and manages Javahut Cafe & Bistro in Guilford. They have a son in third grade, as well as a 3-year-old daughter.
They chose hybrid schooling for their son but don’t know yet which days he will be home.
“How do I ask someone, ‘Can you watch my kid?’ when I don’t know what day it is going to be?” he said. “I will try to juggle my schedule as much as I can, but I will definitely need some form of child care.”
Campbell’s 3-year-old is in an all-day day care, but he said even if his son needs only two days a week of care, it will stretch their budget. “Is it affordable? Not really, no,” he said.
Kenyaliz Perez of East Hartford is still uncertain how the hybrid school schedule will play out for her 8-year-old son. But she knows he will need some day care, and she is nervous about paying for it. ”I’m worried, of course. Every day is going to be a different schedule,” Perez said. “We’ll have to cut ends here and there and that kind of stuff.”
Linda Nelson of Hartford will help her high-risk teenage son with his work, when he starts school remotely. Her situation is secure, but she sees her neighbors struggling. ”There’s plenty of people in my neighborhood who are worried. They don’t have anyone. They want to continue to work, but they can’t afford child care,” she said.
Some parents are considering leaving their jobs to solve the problem. Others are throwing together new work schedules for themselves.
Jessica Fernandez of New Britain has a 7-year-old daughter and 9- and 10-year-old sons. New Britain’s hybrid model divides children into cohorts based on their surnames. Since Fernandez’s two youngest children have a different surname than her oldest, Fernandez, a single parent, faces the possibility of at-home learning every day of the week.
She is appealing to her boss about doing her work more remotely. “We have a lot of single parents in the building. Everyone has concerns about what to do to keep a job and find child care,” she said.
Her worst-case scenario is to quit her job. “I don’t want to live off unemployment, but there may be nothing else I really can do,” she said.
Some two-parent families are avoiding child care costs by juggling work schedules.
Vicki Corneau of Portland will be working five mornings a week in the Hartford school district when her children return to school on a hybrid schedule.
“My husband has to wait until I get home at 12:45 before he can go to work,” Corneau said. “That’s going to be a challenge.”
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He works at his father’s business, so Corneau hopes they will accept this schedule.
The state of emergency that was declared by Gov. Ned Lamont on March 10 expires on Sept. 9. That executive order suspended or modified statutes regulating a variety of industries, including child care, making child care easier to find. Bye said if the state of emergency is not extended, access to child care will be decreased from that day forward. She said she is working with Lamont to possibly extend the state of emergency.
Until the crisis passes, Bye said communities can step up to help increase child care options. “In West Hartford, there is a whole committee to find spaces that can support child care, at faith communities and such.”
She added that child care can operate under the auspices of a school or a town without a license. A town’s recreation department would be a possible provider, she said.
“There is no easy answer here,” Bye said. “These are problems communities are going to have to resolve. They need to make sure parent voices are heard more than anyone else’s.”