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Parents may qualify for paid leave, unemployment if schools are closed for the fall

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Back-to-school season looks dramatically different this year as school districts across the country enter a new world of remote learning, in-person teaching under social distancing guidelines, or a hybrid of the two.

The void of uncertainty is leaving many working parents wondering how they'll juggle their jobs and child care if schools move fully or partially online, or if day-care centers reach capacity or shut down altogether. According to a Care.com survey of 1,000 parents with children under the age of 15,  73% of parents say they plan to make major changes to their professional lives to accommodate the lack of child care for the upcoming school year, and of those, 15% say they are are considering leaving the workforce altogether.

Despite all these new concerns, not much has changed since the spring in terms of legislation that provides support to working parents who must navigate their jobs while kids are at home.

Here's what parents should know about their paid leave or unemployment options if their child's school or day-care facility shuts down during the pandemic.

Some workers may be able to take paid leave to provide child care

If you're a parent and work full- or part-time, you may be able to take paid leave to care for kids at home through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).

Passed in March, the act grants two weeks (up to 80 hours) of emergency paid sick leave at two-thirds pay (up to $200 per day) if you're unable to work because you must care for a child under the age of 18 whose school or care provider is closed or unavailable  due to the pandemic.

Parents can take this leave option so long as school and day-care locations are physically closed, even if schools are conducting virtual learning. If schools are partially reopened, you may be able to take paid leave on the days school is closed and your kids are home. You may also be able to prove that your normal child-care options are unavailable as a result of the pandemic, including arrangements with a nanny, au pair, grandparents or a day care that is open but at capacity.

If you've been employed for at least 30 calendar days, you can get up to an additional 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave at two-thirds pay (up to $200 per day) if you're unable to work because you must care for a child whose school or care facility is closed or unavailable due to to the pandemic.

These 10 weeks of extended family leave can be taken intermittently with employer permission. So, for example, if school is in-person three days a week and virtual for the remaining two, you may be able to take paid leave twice a week until you've exhausted 12 weeks worth of leave.

If you've already taken time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in the past 12 months, the amount of time you can take off during the pandemic will be reduced by that amount out of the 12 total weeks.

A major benefit of this program is that, unlike filing for unemployment insurance, the Families First leave allows you to retain your workforce attachment and, importantly during a global pandemic, your health insurance and other employer benefits.

Not everyone can take this leave, though. The paid leave act applies only to certain public employers and private employers with fewer than 500 workers. Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees may be exempt from providing child-care leave if they can prove doing so could jeopardize their business. Some health-care providers and emergency response workers are also not eligible.

These limitations mean that as many as 106 million workers aren't eligible for paid leave provided by federal legislation, according to estimates from the Center for American Progress.

Ruth Martin, senior vice president and chief workplace justice officer at the advocacy group MomsRising, says many working parents remain in the dark about their FFCRA paid leave options. With all the challenges posed by the pandemic, "it's hard for a working parent just to know which way is up."

"We're very worried about the lack of awareness about it — it's alarming," Martin tells CNBC Make It. "This is the first time the country has had a nationwide limited paid leave program. With the law passed in March and going into effect two weeks later, there hasn't been a lot of time for a mass public education campaign."

If you think you may qualify for FFCRA leave, you should bring it up with your employer directly, Martin says.

"It's not perfect and doesn't go far enough — we need permanent and comprehensive paid leave in this country — but the benefit is there and can help a number of families as we go into fall and continue to face the challenges of the pandemic."

Parents may qualify for unemployment if schools or day cares are shut down due to the pandemic

If you lose your job because you must provide full-time care while kids are at home because schools, and in most states day-care facilities, are shut down as a direct result of the pandemic, you may qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for up to 39 weeks of benefits.

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You may also qualify for PUA and receive partial unemployment benefits if you have to cut your working hours in order to supervise children at home for part of the week.

However, the enhanced unemployment passed in the March CARES Act may apply only to parents of young children or dependents in need of full-time supervision. The legislation reads that "to qualify as a primary caregiver, your provision of care to the child must require such ongoing and constant attention that it is not possible for you to perform your customary work functions at home."

Parents with children old enough to care for themselves for much of the day likely won't qualify for PUA.

Some lawmakers are working to extend PUA eligibility, particularly for the new school year. In July, California Congressmembers Katie Porter and Linda T. Sánchez introduced the Support for Working Families Act to extend PUA to cover families burdened by the partial closing of care centers, facilities operating at reduced capacity, substantial increases in the cost of dependent care, or health risks for the family. Congress and the White House are reportedly working on an extension of the unemployment program, though there hasn't been an agreement yet.

According to the Department of Labor, roughly 10.7 million people were collecting PUA benefits as of July 25, out of 28.2 million total people receiving continued jobless benefits.

Martin says parents should consider both of these federal programs to better understand their child-care options for the new school year.

"We're telling parents: See if you're able to use the Families First Coronavirus Response Act for family leave options. Then, check your state's unemployment office to see if you can use unemployment insurance benefits," Martin says. "The third thing we're stressing is you've got to call your U.S. Senator and tell them to get to work. Families are struggling and the burden is being laid at the feet of working parents, and we need Congress to get to work to support them."

Paid leave options provided by FFCRA and enhanced unemployment under PUA are effective through December 31, 2020, without any additional provisions passed by Congress and the White House. Weeks of heated stimulus talks have resulted in a stalemate as the Senate goes on recess until September.

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