Parents struggle as schools, daycares eye coronavirus reopening decisions

Published: Jul. 13, 2020 at 11:59 AM EDT
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(CNN) - Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will not say whether schools should follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for reopening, saying those guidelines are meant to be flexible.

Experts and officials agree the economy cannot fully reopen until kids are back in school or daycare, but with cases surging across the country, facilities are struggling to figure out how to do it safely.

Eve Johnston, in theory, is one of the lucky ones.

Unlike some 40 million out of work Americans, the Massachusetts mother of two has a full-time job as a nurse, but with her daycare closed since March due to COVID-19, she’s had to cut back her hours and shifts.

“So my husband’s worked nights. I’ve tried to work weekends so that one of us is available,” she said. “I’ve worked nights, more nights than I have previously.”

With the rate of coronavirus cases in Massachusetts trending down, the state has started to lift some restrictions for daycare facilities.

It’s welcome news for Johnston, but also a reminder that she’s not alone. The influx of parents desperate for childcare has made it hard to find an available program.

“And that’s the thing, it’s not sustainable. We are hoping that there’ll be a world with school or daycare at some point, but in the meantime, I accepted a position where I work that I’ll work every Saturday and Sunday night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” Johnston said.

“This is a brand-new floor. I had the carpet ripped out. I put in a vinyl floor,” said Cheryl Lekousi of Tiny Hearts Playgroup and Childcare. She recently reopened her home daycare after receiving state approval.

Among the guidelines, she said, is limiting the number of children under her care, providing proper personal protective equipment and implementing strict hygiene.

At 61, she worries about her own family’s health and whether she can sustain a mandated smaller client base.

“My husband and I did have a serious discussion of ‘Do I need to retire?’ which would mean downsizing the house. What would it look like? Um, and I really didn’t want this to put me into retirement,” Lekousi said.

As parents of school-aged children anxiously await decisions on whether in-person classes will resume in the fall, those with younger children face an equally daunting dilemma.

According to one study, the pandemic could ultimately lead to the loss of nearly 4.5 million childcare slots.

The combined result would leave 17.5 million Americans, or 11 percent of the workforce, caring for their children themselves and thus unlikely to return to full-time work until schools and daycares fully reopen.

“We all want our economy to open. I assure everyone if people can’t get child care, they cannot go back to work.” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Congress has so far allocated $3.5 billion in childcare aid as part of the CARES act. Democrats have recently introduced a new measure that would increase funding to $50 billion.

“I don’t think it’s an easy time for anyone,” said Meredith Smith, executive director for Community Health Outreach in Jacksonville, Fla. She and her husband currently plan on sending their 6- and 7-year-old sons back to school next month.

“Our children go to a small enough school with classroom sizes that would be within less than 10 in most classes, and they have the facilities that are outdoors and open enough that they can accommodate and make accommodations,” she said.

She acknowledges that the recent surge in cases in the state could impact their thinking.

“I feel mixed about everything. I think that’s the nature of this crisis, right?” Smith said. “We’re minute to minute, hearing different things about the virus itself and whether or not schools will be open and how they will be reopening.”

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