As state and local officials finalize plans for children to resume learning in the coming days, a major concern for families is how parents are supposed to balance changes to the traditional school format with their work obligations. Federal COVID-relief packages passed earlier this year provide a bit of help for some families, but the fact remains that working parents, particularly low-income parents and parents of color who are more likely to work in essential frontline jobs and less likely to be able to telework, are in a difficult position with far too few resources.
Half of West Virginia’s counties (27 of 55 counties and the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind) plan to use blended models of instruction, where students spend some time at school in-person and some time learning at home each week in order to limit the number of children in classrooms at any given time. For example, a child might be in school in-person Monday and Tuesday and engage in distance-learning from home Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. The alternative options to blended learning in many counties are full time remote learning, where students are at home five days per week. While limiting in-person school time is an important public health and safety consideration amid the pandemic, it presents a significant challenge for the majority of households in West Virginia which have all available parents participating in the workforce.
According to a recent nationwide survey, 73 percent of parents reported that they plan to make “major changes” to their professional lives if schools and child care centers do not fully open for the upcoming school year, including amending their work schedule, looking for a new job, or leaving the workforce altogether.
While the majority of families may wish to make these sorts of changes, many parents of West Virginia’s 237,670 kids under 12 lack the economic security and job flexibility in order to make this work. Again, those who work in frontline industries– disproportionately low-income workers and people of color– will have the most difficult time making these desired adjustments. Higher wage workers are six times more likely to have job flexibility, including the ability to telework, than low-income workers. Parents of color also have less access to telework and job flexibility due to decades of structural racism, including occupational and residential segregation. Nationally, less than one in five Black workers and one in six Hispanic workers are able to work from home.
Parents who are working full- or part-time may be eligible for temporary federal supports. Under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed in March, workers at certain public employers and private businesses with fewer than 500 employees are entitled to two weeks of emergency paid sick leave at two-thirds pay if they are unable to work because they need to care for a child whose school or child care provider is unavailable due to the pandemic.
Additionally, workers who have been employed for at least one month may be eligible for an additional 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave at two-thirds pay if they are unable to work due to a “bona fide need for leave to care for a child whose school or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19.” This leave program expires on December 31, 2020 and can be used intermittently, meaning it could be helpful for workers whose children are learning in blended school models with some days in school and some days at home.
There may also be unemployment assistance available for parents who lose their job as a result of needing to provide full-time care while kids are at home due to school shutdowns. Under the CARES Act, providing care for a child who can’t attend school can be a valid reason for unemployment eligibility under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. According to the state’s WorkForce WV Agency, “if you rely on a school, daycare, or another facility to care for a child, elderly parent, or another household member so that you can work- and that facility has been shut down because of coronavirus- you may be eligible.” PUA is available through December 31, 2020.
While paid leave and unemployment benefits may be available to some parents who are struggling to balance child care and work, there is far too little support available overall. Most of the federal COVID-relief provisions passed in the spring to help families have expired, including expanded unemployment benefits, $1,200 stimulus payments, and the federal eviction moratorium. Meanwhile the US Senate has adjourned until after Labor Day, just as parents are struggling to come up with workable back-to-school plans.
Further, this pandemic has only exacerbated long-standing issues that working parents face. Enacting a permanent paid family and medical leave program, ensuring fair scheduling, investing in our state’s child care infrastructure, and making sure families earn a living wage, would improve racial equity and ensure that families can more easily balance work and life going forward.