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Families Face Tough Decisions About School, Childcare and Jobs 

click to enlarge ROB DONNELLY
  • Rob Donnelly

For many parents, facing down the rapidly approaching school year has forced them to confront a reality with few good options. The thought of sending kids back to school, where they will potentially be exposed to hundreds of other children in an era when physical distancing is advisable, has prompted some parents to file paperwork to keep their kids home; the Vermont Agency of Education reports that by July 15, homeschool enrollments were up by 75 percent over last year. Others worry that their kids' education and morale will suffer at home. And many working parents, who can't stay home full time, don't have a choice at all.

"I feel like we are in a lose-lose-lose situation," said Michelle Steele of Bristol. Steele teaches high school French and Spanish at Middlebury Union High School and has three kids, ages 4, 6 and 9. When school buildings closed in March, Steele found herself juggling three hours of Zoom classes every day with her teenage students while trying to help her own kids with online learning.

"It was a nightmare," she said. "It went so badly for us. I'm a certified educator; I should be able to do this with my own kids!" But her kindergartner, in particular, proved a challenge. "He was excited about Zoom for about two weeks, and then he refused to do it anymore," Steele said. "He checked out really quickly."

Teachers such as Steele didn't qualify for childcare for essential workers. Her husband was working from home, too, and they found the situation untenable. She estimated that her kids completed about 30 percent of their assigned schoolwork.

In some ways, Steele is happy to send them back to school in-person. Her family's district is adopting a hybrid model, where the kids will be in the school building two days per week. She's looking into hiring someone to stay with them on the days they are at home.

Steele thinks that going back to in-person school part time will be better for her kids both academically and socially. But she's also scared.

"I'm so terrified for the experience they're going to have," she admitted, citing reopening protocols such as having to wear masks all day and having less freedom to interact with friends during recess and PE. "Is that an experience we really even want for our kids?"

She expects to be in her school building five days per week, which makes her worried for her own health, too. She's had friends ask if she'd be interested in quitting her job and homeschooling other people's kids, teaching in one of the "pandemic pods" that small groups of parents with the means to do so are organizing around the country.

Steele finds the idea potentially problematic. "I carry the health insurance for my family, and I can't afford to leave my job," she said. But she's also passionate about her work and has more philosophical reasons for staying at a public school.

"I do want to fight for public education," Steele said. "We could probably afford to keep our kids home ... [But] I'd rather use my voice to say, 'Let's figure out how to make this work for all families.'"

Shannon Planck, a mom of three in Barre, said she's heard of people organizing small neighborhood school clusters, where different parents pitch in. She likes the idea in theory but doesn't think it's possible for her family. She's a single parent of a 5-year-old, a preschooler and a toddler, and she works full time.

"Even if I could magically quit my job ... I'm not a kindergarten teacher," Planck said. "That's a really important skill, and it's not something that's easy to pick up on your own."

During the "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order Gov. Phil Scott issued in the spring, Planck leaned on her mother and the kids' father, who would take them for short periods of time. When her kids were home, she would let them watch TV or play online so she could squeeze in virtual appointments with the other kids in her life — those she works with as a speech pathologist.

"They were watching more TV than I would like them to," Planck said of her children. "And when you hear a crash at the other end of the house, you have to run and see what they're doing."

This fall, her 3-year-old will be in preschool two days per week, and Planck will likely rely on family and a babysitter to watch her on the other three weekdays. Planck has enrolled her kindergartner at the school where she works. But she wonders what will happen if her kids get sick and she has to miss work days.

"I have to keep my job and benefits, because I need to pay my bills. Also, my students really need speech therapy services," Planck said. "It's a lot of uncertainty. I do constantly wonder if I'm making the right choice, sending them to school. But I don't think it's fair to [my kids], either, if I'm trying to cram in schoolwork on nights and weekends."

For families with members who could be at a high risk for the coronavirus, calculations are different. Jack Taylor, a dad of three in East Calais, has an 8-year-old daughter with a seizure disorder and a mother-in-law with Alzheimer's disease. Those health factors led Taylor and his wife, Jennifer, to decide that their three kids will be homeschooled this fall. It won't be easy — Jennifer is already the main caretaker for her mother. Jack will return to work as an elementary school behavior interventionist.

"For me, returning to work, the stress of being exposed and then possibly bringing something back home, is stressful," Taylor said. "It's not going to be easy. We'll work it out."

What would help, Taylor said, is if every school district offered a fully remote option for families. (Some districts have already said they will. The superintendent of the Washington Central Unified Union School District, where Taylor's kids are enrolled, wrote in a memo on July 31 that the district was working on a remote option.) Taylor said this would relieve parents of the pressures of designing their own curriculum, allow schools to have a system in place in case a resurgence of the coronavirus caused schools to fully shut down again, and make schools safer for the kids who do need to attend in person by reducing the total number of students. Taylor started a petition on Change.org requesting that the state mandate a fully remote option or offer a statewide downloadable homeschooling curriculum. The petition has received around 750 signatures.

These problems have been on a lot of parents' and educators' minds, and in the media. When Jane Lindholm, the primary host of Vermont Public Radio's "Vermont Edition," ended an episode on school reopenings on July 27, the typically unflappable radio personality was candid. "I am in full freak-out mode," she told listeners.

Lindholm told Kids VT her two young kids will be attending first grade and preschool in person this fall, but she doesn't know how she and her husband will manage the part-time school schedule while both are also working. Even before COVID-19, she said, childcare was expensive and hard to find.

"I think that the pandemic has highlighted a crisis that already existed," Lindholm said. "I don't think it was a surprise to any of the families with small children. But I think a lot more people in power have to pay attention to it."

The problems with Vermont's childcare industry have been well documented. According to a 2020 report from Let's Grow Kids, "71.5 percent of children 5 and under live in families in which all available parents are in the labor force." The report states that Vermont would need to add 8,925 childcare slots for kids age 5 and under to meet demand.

Instead, the pandemic has seen both the University of Vermont and Saint Michael's College close their childcare centers — though the Early Learning Center at St. Mike's will reopen in late August as a nonprofit, according to its board chair, Laura Lee. According to reporting by WCAX-TV, these closures left 100 Chittenden County families suddenly without care this summer. Before the closure, there had been 600 children on the waiting list for UVM's program.

Women are often hardest hit when it comes to childcare issues. A recent report from the Vermont Commission on Women found that 43.9 percent of separated women in Vermont live with minor children, compared with 21.6 percent of separated men. "Nationally, women are four times more likely than men to take time off from work when children are sick," the report continues. Experts believe childcare needs contribute to the wage gap between men and women, which persists in Vermont.

According to a recent survey of more than 2,500 working parents by Northeastern University, 13 percent had to resign or reduce work hours to care for their children during the pandemic, and 60 percent of those were women.

One Winooski parent, Kelly, recently sent her two kids back to their childcare center, but not because she felt ready to do so. She was told she'd lose her spot in the program if her family didn't return — and, as a single, working mom, Kelly knew that losing childcare would be disastrous. She'd been laid off during the early days of the pandemic but now is able to return to work part time.

Kelly said she left her husband last fall after experiencing domestic abuse. (Kids VT agreed not to print her last name due to these circumstances.) Since then, balancing work and parenting has been "chaotic," she said. Kelly works as a sleep technologist, but she found herself having to leave work frequently to pick up one of her kids because they got sick — and that was before the global pandemic. Her work performance, she said, has suffered.

"The system has never worked, and now it's even worse, and it's frustrating," she said. "I'm just constantly having to choose between my career and my children."

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