Parenting in a pandemic: Anxieties working parents face with back-to-school decisions

This story is part of “Parenting in a Pandemic,” WTOP’s continuing coverage of how parents are dealing with childcare, schooling and more through the coronavirus pandemic.

Life has become a juggling act for many working parents since the coronavirus pandemic closed school systems in the D.C. area in March.

It’s one thing if your kids are old enough and self-sufficient, but it’s quite different if you are balancing Zoom calls while the kids are screaming in the background. Or if you find yourself refereeing fights or helping with homework during the hours that you are supposed to be working.

In the coming weeks, many parents are facing the possibility of doing it all over again, as they try to balance kids and careers that are all affected by the coronavirus.

Michelle is a hairdresser who lives in Arnold, Maryland. Her husband works odd hours when he’s not traveling the world for work, which means her schedule has to work around their two sons, ages 10 and 8.


Parenting in a pandemic: The search for child care

Michelle from Arnold
Michelle from Arnold, Maryland, faces the dilemma of going back to work and letting her children go back to in-person learning. (WTOP/John Domen)

She wants to go back to work — for the money and because she loves what she does. She also could stand to get out of the house and get a break from spending 24/7 with her kids for however many weeks it has been.

But as she waits for Anne Arundel County Public Schools to come up with a plan for fall, she is anxious and uncertain.

“I’m really scared,” Michelle said. “I just don’t really know how it could be safe at this point, if we can’t even be together fully in groups.”

If given the choice between some distance learning and some in-class learning, or doing distance learning entirely, “I’m going to opt for the home school,” she said.

She has concerns whether kids can wear masks all day, not to mention after having spent the past several months in near-quarantine conditions, suddenly her kids would be exposed to so many other students, too.

“It scares me to know that I will be subjecting them to some sort of exposure at some point,” Michelle said. “I can’t see how they wouldn’t be.”

Her concerns about masks are echoed by Nikkole Casper, who is balancing work with four kids at home.

Nikkole is not sure how well students at the schools her children go to will wear their masks, but she is hopeful that her kids will get to spend time in the classroom this fall.

“I want them to be in school,” Casper said. “I think they need to have interaction with their friends and teachers face-to-face, not over a Zoom call.”

Distance learning went fairly well for her two oldest kids, one in high school and the other in middle school. She is not worried about them keeping up with their work if they can’t get back in the classroom.

But her third-youngest child is in fourth grade, and she’s a different story.

“I’m going to end up taking her to work with me” if distance learning becomes a regular thing this fall, Casper said. Or, she will have to work fewer hours so that she can be home and help her daughter with school work.

“The last thing I want to do is work all day, come home, make dinner, and then do her work and then everybody’s tired, nobody wants to do it, and it becomes a struggle,” Casper said.

Casper’s current job allows her more flexibility than the one she had when the pandemic started making an impact in the D.C. area. She lost her old job when she was suddenly forced to stay home with her kids.

nikkole casper
Nikkole Casper, of Gambrills, Maryland, working mom of four, poses in a mask with her kids. (Courtesy Nikkole Casper)

As the pandemic led to longer closures of businesses and services, more companies have become more willing and have started to provide more flexibility to their employees.

“Employers have said their No. 1 decision, 81%, is health and safety in regards to returning to work,” said Cheryl Oldham, a vice president of education policy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as a working mother herself. “But a really close second, 79%, was child care.”

Oldham said employers discovered that parents can stay home and get their work done even with kids running around the house.

And because of that — with school systems struggling to take so many different things into consideration while they come up with a plan for the fall — whether employers have a say in the matter becomes less important.

Oldham said she has had few conversations that questioned whether businesses are “part of the conversations.”

“Is there a recognition there’s an impact on work and there’s an impact on parents and their ability to work depending on what happens at schools?” are some questions Oldham has.

She believes that schools have “so much to juggle … from just a pure school perspective. I don’t think they’ve taken on this issue of, ‘What do parents do? How do they get back to work?'”

“Maybe it’s not [the schools’] job to do that,” Oldham added.

But Oldham said one bright spot in all of this is the recognition of just how important child care is for parents.

And so while parents still struggle to figure out how their children will go back to school in the fall, in more cases than before, their bosses might offer flexibility that did not exist a year ago.

More and more indications suggest it might be needed.

More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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