‘An assistant teacher, lunch lady, janitor and IT person’: Parents juggle, struggle amid COVID-19 crisis

By Ken Coleman, Michigan Advance

Being a parent of young children can be a challenge under normal circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has naturally made that much tougher for many families.

Theresa Mitchell is a mother of two young Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) students who are being educated online. Mitchell preferred for them to learn in-person, but there were not enough teachers at their school to lead classrooms for her children.

“I’ve had to be an assistant teacher, lunch lady, janitor, and IT [information technology] person,” said Mitchell, who works from home.

During the first week of school, she spent a considerable amount of time troubleshooting as the school district-issued computers, at times, did not work properly. One day Mitchell was forced to have her one child use the computer that she uses for work.

“So that stopped me from working for the entire day, pretty much,” Mitchell said. “I had to try to catch up at the end of the day.”

In another instance, the sound on the computer a teacher was using didn’t work. Kids in the virtual classroom could not hear the teacher and did not know how to tell the instructor about the problem. Mitchell wanted to help troubleshoot the problem. 

“I couldn’t walk away for a couple of days,” Mitchell said. “And it took me away from work.”

DPSCD, the state’s largest public school district, reports about 80% of their 51,000 students are being educated online, with the other 20% in person. Schools officials and local business leaders announced in March a $23 million initiative where a private sector coalition would purchase laptop computers for each student and seek to boost Internet connectivity through the city.

Women, POC pay the price

Women are bearing the brunt of the childcare and homeschooling crunch during the pandemic, according to U.S. Census research.

In the United States, around one in five (19.6%) of working-age adults said the reason they were not working was because COVID-19 disrupted their childcare arrangements.

Of those not working, women ages 25 to 44 (Generation Z and Millennials) are almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands. About one in three (32.1%) of these women are not working because of childcare, compared to 12.1% of men in the same age group.

“Parents are among the unsung heroes of this crisis. They have adapted their households and juggled work, children’s schooling and other household needs,” write Misty L. Heggeness, principal economist and senior advisor for evaluations and experiments at the U.S. Census Bureau and Jason M. Fields, senior researcher for demographic programs at the U.S. Census Bureau. 

The burden on moms increased with time during the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Census found. The percentage of mothers age 25 to 44 not working due to COVID-19 related childcare issues grew by 4.8 percentage points as the weeks wore on, while their male counterparts didn’t experience the same issue.

Working-age women in households with children were more anxious than men. More than one-third of women (36.9%) reported being anxious more than half the days or nearly every day, compared to 30% of men. These women also reported more worry, with 32.3% compared with 25.3% of men.

Heggeness and Fields write that the pandemic “uniquely affected mothers’ work in formal labor markets.” 

“As the nation moves forward in this crisis, research shows that particular attention will need to be paid to schooling and child care, not just for the sake of the children but also for working moms,” they add.

The COVID-19 crisis also has hurt struggling parents who have lost income and are trying to keep their children healthy and stable, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation national survey published in May. 

More than four in 10 (43.3%) parents living with children under age 19 reported that they or a family member lost a job, have fewer or more work hours, or endured reduced income because of the coronavirus outbreak. 

The negative impacts of employment, or unemployment, have disproportionately affected families of color. Almost two-thirds (62.2%) of Latino parents and half of Black parents (49.7%) reported one or more of these negative impacts, whereas 36.5% of white parents reported experiencing these impacts.

Closer to home, two-thirds of women of color in Michigan have either lost their jobs or faced reduced work hours because of COVID-19, according to a survey released in August by Mothering Justice, a Michigan-based nonprofit advocacy group, and the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s Law Center. 

Furthermore, among women of color in Michigan, two-thirds reported that they have been affected financially by COVID-19. Nearly half have either had their work hours cut (three in 10) or were furloughed from their job (two in 10), according to the survey.

What the state, feds can do

State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), a former social worker who has a kindergartener and a toddler, understands the needs of vulnerable parents. 

For the last several months of the pandemic, Chang, has spent hours on virtual calls, often with her youngest child in her arms.

“It was a lot of Zooming and then juggling the kids,” Chang said. “Now that I’m back in [Senate] session, we have a whole combination of things going. The saying that ‘it takes a village’ is definitely happening.”

Some days, her children go to a grandmother’s house. Other days, Chang is with them for long periods. And sometimes her older child attends a DPSCD school. 

Chang says she knows that she is fortunate to be able to afford childcare when necessary. More than 30% of Detroit’s households live under the federal poverty level, putting childcare out of reach for many. She believes that the government can do more to help families, some of whom are led by essential workers, with school-aged children during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We need to fight for everyone,” said Chang who represents a portion of Detroit, as well as Ecorse, Gibraltar, Grosse Ile, River Rouge, Riverview, Trenton, Woodhaven, Wyandotte and Brownstown Township. 

She has advocated for housing assistance and support for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19-related executive orders, which have ranged from a moratorium on housing evictions, protection of frontline workers, closing large public spaces for a period of time, and extending the state of emergency.

Chang said that Congress passing the HEROES Act would also help. The legislation is the U.S. House Democratic effort to continue COVID-19 relief funding. The $3.4 trillion spending plan, approved in May, would additional stimulus checks for households, rental and mortgage assistance as well as support for small businesses. U.S. Senate Republicans have refused to take up the legislation.

Meanwhile, whites have returned to work back twice as fast as Black workers. Nationwide, the Black unemployment rate is still in double digits at 13%. The rate for white workers is 7.3%, nearly half of what it is for Black workers. African Americans compose 14% of Michigan’s population.

Alex Rossman, Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) external affairs director, said that state government can do more to assist families during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The economic justice nonprofit wants to see the Legislature expand earned paid family and sick leave to all workers and permanently extend state unemployment benefits from 20 weeks back to 26 weeks. Restoring the state Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income families from 6% to 20% of the federal credit and increasing the income eligibility for child care subsidies are other priorities. 

Other family-friendly policies the MLPP supports are changing school funding to help lower-income students and ending the policy of ending cash assistance benefits from families with truant children. 

“During these difficult times for everyone, we also appreciate the Legislature’s bipartisan, concerted effort to address barriers to much-needed employment and food assistance for justice-involved Michiganders,” Rossman said. “… Efforts to expand and automate adult and juvenile criminal record expungement, make a variety of occupational licenses available to individuals with a criminal record, and end the harsh lifetime ban from food assistance for certain drug felons all offer rays of hope for former offenders struggling to get back on their feet during COVID times.”

Detroiter Rhonda Smith has homeschooled three children for most of the last decade while operating her own business. She suggests that parents create a schedule for their work and parenting tasks to be carried out.

“Kids think because they are at home that they can sleep in,” Smith said. “No, there is a schedule, the class starts at a certain time but to allow some leniency. You have to be flexible. You don’t want to go from one extreme to another.”

Another word of advice: Do not try to completely replicate the traditional school setting at home.

“As a parent, you may not have a set lunch schedule as you have had previously,” Smith said about life before COVID-19. “You may have to check in on your student, your children.”

The Michigan Department of Education offers a resource page for parents and guardians.

DPSCD offers a Mental Health Support line for parents and students that provides referrals for additional services. It operates Monday – Thursday, from 5:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. It can be reached at 1-833-466-3978. The school district also provides face-to-face training sessions for parents who need help navigating with student on-line learning.

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