When New York City Schools released a plan to reopen its 1,800 schools in the fall, parents like Ruzanna Yesayan felt frustrated.
To accommodate social distancing and safety guidance advice from the CDC, New York City schools are planning to have children attend classes virtually and stagger their in-classroom time. Most will be attending school in-person about two days a week, according to the NYC Department of Education, which oversees the biggest school district in the U.S.
But for Yesayan, who runs a production business with her husband, Randy, this is a nightmare scenario: She's now scrambling to come up with alternate care solutions for her 4-year-old twins who are set to start pre-K 4 this fall. "The school reopening plan proposed by the mayor and the Education Department is a disaster for working families," she says. "Parents will be forced to provide alternative child-care arrangements on the days when the children are not in school."
The care options are slim for Yesayan. "We don't have any family nearby to help with the child care, and currently we can't afford a sitter who could supervise our children on the days they are off from school," Yesayan says. "Our projects and clients are very demanding, and we can't do our work while acting as teachers for our twins."
Yet while Yesayan worries about finding child care for the days her children are not in school, she says going back full time doesn't feel right either now. "The message that the city and the Education Department and some of the teachers are sending is that New York City schools are fundamentally unsafe," she says. "I don't understand how is it even worth it to put children in school for 2 days a week? Why would I compromise my family's safety at all? It doesn't make sense."
The most viable solution for her family might be to leave New York. "None of the solutions are easy, and most likely we have to leave the city," Yesayan says, adding that she and her husband are contemplating relocating to California, at least temporarily, to be closer to family who can help with child care. "We've lived in the city since 2007, and we love it. However, I think that the federal, state and city government and the Education Department completely failed middle- and working-class families," she says. "I feel very frustrated and angry, and I would like to do something about it. I just don't know what."
Even parents with older children are struggling to cope. Ayesha Badhwar, who also lives in New York City, says her older son, who is set to start high school this fall, should be fine with a blended learning schedule. But she's worried about her younger son who will be in fifth grade.
"My 9-year-old is not going to manage that schedule at all, as remote learning was a complete bust for him [in spring]. He was not doing his school work unless continuously monitored," Badhwar says.
But constant monitoring isn't always an option. "Being a full-time working parent (remote for now), I am not sure how I will navigate this schedule. I am on conference calls all day, and I can't afford to lose my job, nor do I make enough to hire a full-time sitter to just watch him or help him during the remote school days," Badhwar says.
"I am definitely panicking," she adds, saying that she has even talked to her husband about taking the paid time off passed in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The legislation gives parents who work for companies with fewer than 500 employees the option to take up to 12 weeks of partially paid time off if they've worked for the business for more than a month.
But while that might give her the time needed to teach her sons at home, Badhwar worries the pay cut might leave the family "financially strapped."
It's not just New York City that's moving forward with a blend of remote learning and part-time attendance in classrooms. School districts across the country have started to communicate their fall reopening plans and many are moving ahead with initiatives that keep kids out of the classroom for at least for a portion of the school week.
In Seattle, K-12 students are set to only be in the classroom two days a week as well, while schools in Fairfax County, Virginia are offering parents a choice: virtual learning four days a week or a blended schedule with at least two full days of in-classroom learning a week and children engaged in independent study on alternate days. Meanwhile, schools in Los Angeles and San Diego will start back in an online-only format next month with plans to start in-person classes "as soon as public health conditions allow," the districts announced Monday.
In Maryland, where Ruth Martin's two kids attend school, the school district intends to start the year on August 30 with a completely virtual learning experience, with plans to gradually phase-in some mixture of in-person and remote learning between the beginning of the school year and November.
"I have to confess to you as a working parent, I actually had to read chunks of this plan and put it down and walk away from it because my anxiety flares up so much that I can only process it a little bit at a time," says Martin, the senior vice president and chief workplace justice officer at MomsRising.
Overall, only about 39% of parents consider it safe for kids to go back into school, according to a new CNBC/Change Research poll that surveyed 4,332 likely voters across the six states last week. Among both parents and non-parents, one in three likely voters believe full-time in-person classes will be safe, while 13% reported feeling safe about part-time in-person classes.
Beyond the anxiety and frustration, these back-to-school plans have real, direct costs to families. A majority of working parents, 78%, are concerned that this "new normal" caused by the pandemic, including a lack of child-care options, will have a long-lasting effect on their quality of life and future career prospects, according to a June survey of over 1,000 full-time workers conducted by Udemy.
Let's be clear, Martin says, it's going to be women, communities of color and low-income households that suffer the most. "They have borne the brunt of the pandemic so far and will continue to suffer the consequences of it," she adds.
About 21.5 million workers in the U.S. have a child under the age of 6, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the Center for American Progress finds that Black and multiracial families tend to experience more child-care hardships because they typically have less access to remote work and job flexibility.
Black parents who have problems finding child care quit their jobs, do not take employment or change their work at a rate double that of White parents facing a lack of care. About 13.1% of Black parents say they've experienced these hardships as opposed to 7.2% of White parents, American Progress finds.
When it comes to the women, the effects of reduced access to child care are already being felt. During the pandemic, mothers with children under 13 have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers, according to an academic study released in July that has not yet been peer-reviewed. The analysis estimates this has led to a 20% to 50% increase in the gender gap in terms of work hours.
A June survey of working parents showed that 33% report that at least one partner has either left the workforce or dropped down to part-time, according to a poll conducted by parenting benefits startup Cleo of 136 of its customer families with young children. The poll, while perhaps not demographically representative, found that of parents giving up their work, 70% were women.
Women are already experiencing higher levels of job losses during the pandemic. A lack of child care, including school closures, will make it more difficult to return to work. "You have this double whammy hitting women at this time," says Melissa Boteach, vice president of the National Women's Law Center.
"Until we get [this pandemic] under control, you're going to see those gender and racial disparities by income, by wealth, widen and widen in ways that will be harder to bounce back from," Boteach says.
When asked what activities the government should work hardest to reopen safely, 74% of the CNBC/Change Research survey respondents chose day care and K-12 schools from a list that included airlines, beaches, sports venues, retail stores and bars.
As parents, we want it all, Martin says: You want realistic child-care solutions that can help you get back to work without bankrupting your family's budget, but you also want your kids and communities to stay as safe as possible. And many parents, she says, are equally worried that reopening schools with normal attendance will compromise that safety, especially when considering school systems that have been historically underfunded.
"There's a real lack of investment at the national level in child-care institutions and infrastructure," Martin says, adding that MomsRising members are concerned about the risk as communities and local school districts start to think about sending kids back to school or reopening the economy.
Those are valid concerns. While recent studies show children may not contract severe Covid-19 cases as easily as adults, schools are an ecosystem in which adult teachers, staff, bus drivers and administrators are needed to make the school day function. And even lower levels of coronavirus spread could means that the U.S. has to deal with millions of infected classrooms all at the same time, says Jeremy Konyndyk, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development
"Having every school reopened with normal operations simultaneously would be an extreme risk," says Konyndyk, who is the former director for foreign disaster assistance under the Obama administration and who oversaw the U.S. government's Ebola operations in West Africa.
"Even at a lower-than-average rate of spread, that still creates the potential for a lot of spread," Konyndyk noted in a call with the press on Tuesday. Additionally, classrooms and schools generally share a lot of characteristics with other super spreading environments: They tend to have enclosed spaces with poor air circulation, a lot of people talking or singing and a lot of individuals in close proximity for a prolonged period of time.
And while other countries have reopened their schools safely, without seeing increases in transmission, they did so with a few important caveats. Countries that have successfully reopened schools waited until they had nearly suppressed the virus, and they have enacted plans that called for extensive changes to school operations, including shrinking class sizes, implementing different scheduling arrangements and making some physical adaptations to school facilities.
"That's pretty difficult for schools. It takes resources; it takes time and planning," Konyndyk says, adding this should have been something that was kicked off back in May or June to give schools the summer to plan. There was a bit of a bit of collective complacency Konyndyk believes, because the cases seemed to be going down for a while, so it looked like maybe the U.S. would hit the fall with a low case level.
That's not the case now with so many parts of the country experiencing massive spikes in the number of Covid-19 cases. And simply attending class in-person for a few days instead of the full five-day work week may not significantly reduce the overall risk since many parents will be forced to find alternate child care arrangements on days their kids are tuning in remotely.
"We're now shifting risk onto less well paid, child-care workers and the other children in those classrooms or in those home settings," Boteach says. "Until we get this public health pandemic under control, there's no economic recovery, there's no safe school, there's no safe child care."
So without full-time school for children in many parts of the country, where does that leave us? For many parents, it's facing a future without a lot of viable options. "It doesn't feel like there's any good answer right now," Martin says.
Don't miss more in this series:
- Black parents are twice as likely to suffer setbacks at work when they can't find child care
- Coronavirus forced 62% of summer camps to close this year and early estimates predict the industry will take a $16 billion revenue hit
- States have largely reopened child care, but only 47% of children have returned so far
- My preschool closed and now I'm looking at schools with tuition over four times what I was paying