When the pandemic began, Brianna McCain quit her job as an office manager to take care of her two young daughters. She was ready to go back to work last spring. But she didn’t make it because her children are still at home.
She was looking for a job with flexible hours and the option to work from home, but these are hard to find, especially for new hires and hourly workers. She cannot take a personal job until the school opens for her 6-year-old, and her Portland, Oregon district has not announced its plans. She also needs childcare for her 2 year old, which costs less than she deserves, but childcare availability is well below pre-pandemic levels and prices have gone up to cover the cost of Covid security measures.
“Especially with a new job, there is no flexibility,” says Ms. McCain, whose partner, a warehouse worker, cannot work from home. “And with the unknowns from Covid, I don’t know whether my child will be pulled out of school for quarantine or whether school will end.”
Especially with the proliferation of the Delta variant, many parents of young children – those under the age of 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated – are saying that they will not be able to return to work or apply for new jobs while insecure is about when their children can safely return to full-time school or childcare.
Businesses struggle to hire and retain workers for other reasons, too, and many parents have had no choice but to work. (In a recent survey by the Census Bureau, 5 percent of parents said their children are currently not attending childcare due to pandemic-related reasons.) But for the group of parents who still have children at home – they are disproportionately black and Latinos and some have medically vulnerable family members – that’s a big challenge.
“You can’t part with childcare and the pandemic,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. “It’s important that we don’t forget the workers who wrestle with it day in and day out.”
In an Indeed poll this summer, a third of job seekers said they didn’t want to start in the next month, and a significant proportion said they would wait for schools to open. Among those who were unemployed but not looking urgently, almost a fifth said that care responsibilities were the reason. People without a college degree were more likely to give such a reason – and were less likely to be able to work from home or afford nannies.
Summer is always a challenge for working parents, and this is especially true this year. To meet safety guidelines, many camps are open with shorter schedules and fewer children. Others have closed due to a lack of staff. And many parents are uncomfortable sending their children because of the risk of exposure to Covid.
Autumn is getting more and more uncertain. Some jobs have paused reopening plans because of Delta, and parents fear schools may follow suit. Certain companies, including McDonald’s, and states like Illinois, are trying to forestall this by offering childcare allowances to help parents get back to work. According to Bright Horizons, the employer-based childcare company, 75 companies started offering additional childcare this calendar year, and others, like PayPal, expanded their expanded pandemic benefits this year.
Most school districts still say they plan to open full-time, without the shortened timetables that many had last spring. And the five largest nationwide have released plans to reopen, according to the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has been tracking districts’ responses to the pandemic. However, some plans are still sparse in detail, and the districts in which union negotiations are ongoing were unable to answer all of the parents’ questions.
“What surprised us most this summer is the lack of publicly available clarity about what to expect,” said Bree Dusseault, who leads the data work. “Families need to know so that they can structure their lives.”
Parents in districts who have already announced plans to reopen are also faced with uncertainty. Will there be pre- and post-school childcare and after-school activities? Do families have to be quarantined for two weeks if there are cases in schools? Could schools close again if cases continue to increase?
For Alexis Lohse, mother of two in St. Paul, Minnesota, Delta is one detour too much. She lived in poverty as a single mother. At 30, she was the first in her family to go to college and earn a master’s degree. She got a job in the state government, and just before the pandemic, she had the chance of a long-awaited promotion.
But when the schools closed, she couldn’t pursue it. She continued to work, but put aside all opportunities for advancement and reduced her hours. (Her husband, a postman, couldn’t do that.) Now her county is classified as Highly Vulnerable by the CDC, and with the school opening right after big gatherings at the Minnesota State Fair, she’s skeptical that full-time school will happen.
“I don’t know how to get back on track, especially with the questions out there – how schools reopen; If; Variants; the behavior of everyone else; that schools open and close at bizarre, random hours, “she said.
The safety net that she has built has been torn away, she says: “I know how difficult it is and how little infrastructure our country has to support parents. And it just feels so frustrating that I hit the same brick walls that I hit 16 years ago in the pandemic. “
Many parents of preschool children struggle with a shortage of childcare places. Research shows that a third of day care centers have never opened again; those that are still closed catered disproportionately to Asian, Latin American and black families. Those that have opened are on average 70 percent full. They struggled to hire qualified teachers; must keep classes small to limit exposure to the virus; and have raised prices to cover new health and cleaning measures.
Daphne Muller, Los Angeles mother of two and a technology company consultant, says she calls preschools almost every week to see if there is room for their youngest: “I don’t feel like I have any career plans myself. I don’t want to take a job and have to quit. “
Parents must also plan for disruptions, such as quarantine times after exposure or when the number of cases in the community increases.
Bee Thorp, a mother of two in Richmond, Virginia, said her children’s daycare closed three times for two weeks each time last year, as well as cutting cleaning times. Her husband, a lawyer, was much less flexible than she, so the extra care fell on her.
“That means I’m not really looking for a job,” she said. “I can’t ask in an interview, ‘Do you mind if I pick up two weeks without notice?’ It’s frustrating to hear comments about people not applying for jobs. Maybe people want these jobs; they just can’t. “
Other parents are not yet ready to send their unvaccinated children to school. Amy Kolev is a mother of three and a construction project manager based in Glen Burnie, Maryland. When the virtual school got too tough, she and her husband, a software programmer, decided to quit. She longs to return, but does not risk exposing her children.
“I will be back when my children are vaccinated and not the day before,” she said.