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Survival Mode: The Impossible Logistics of Back to School in the COVID Era

By: Michele Wood, Director of Research, Valbridge Property Advisors | Houston

August 18, 2020

“It is a nightmare. I can’t do my job at all. I have three kids in three schools and one of them is only 6. It is a nightmare. It changes daily and I expect it to continue to do so. So we can’t even plan or count on any consistency. It’s hard to express how badly I am drowning and how badly my mental and physical and professional health are suffering.”

As I turned from dropping my daughter off at college in North Carolina for her freshman year, I turned my attention to my son at home about to start high school, I reached out to some other working moms I know and received a lot of reactions like the one above, from an urban planner friend in the northeast. Another friend, a single mom who is a school teacher reported that she has to report to her school in person, having to leave her two middle schoolers home alone. “Single parent. School teacher. Two children— full time. Dad has seen them 4 times since March. I will be returning to the classroom. They’ll be home 3 days— no adult, so I imagine it will be Roblox and Minecraft. I can’t afford someone to come into our home and watch them.”

Working parents always have a lot of logistics to figure out, but this year, structures that have traditionally made a difficult situation feasible (school, school transportation, daycare/aftercare programs, assistance from family & friends, extracurricular activities, etc) have disappeared, nearly overnight. While many parents have made adjustments to working from home, allowing them to at least supervise young children, 63% of American workers have jobs that cannot be done remotely. According to a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the situation is even more dire for minority workers. Just 20% of black employees and 16% of Latinx employees had the option to work from home.

Even for families with teens and older kids, if four people in the house are streaming on Zoom, most homes don’t have the bandwidth to make it work smoothly. Parents have to not only be experts at our own jobs, but now we must become nearly full time tutors in unfamiliar subjects (I know I took Geometry in high school, but I couldn’t remember a single concept from it if my life depended on it), learn new teaching methods (Common Core math???), not to mention become the entire IT department for the home.

How can firms help support their working parents, especially working moms who tend to shoulder much of the caregiving responsibilities in the home during the ongoing shut downs and uneasy transition back to school? Offering work from home options for all employees who need it is a huge step. Analytics firm Perceptyx surveyed 1,500 working parents and found that firms that offer flexibility and work from home options are 34% more likely to retain those employees. The first step for managers is to understand who in your team has caretaking duties and initiate talks with them about how a balance can be reached. It is in everyone’s interest to prevent a lifestyle challenge from turning into a mental health crisis or a valued employee having to quit.

Other ways managers and team members can support working parents:

  • Do not judge those with caretaking duties against those without in terms of working harder or being more committed.
  • Do not insist on meetings being attended in real time. Record Zoom sessions so employees can watch when available.
  • Do not insist on on-camera calls. Some moms may need to nurse infants during a staff meeting, or fathers may need to quietly settle a sibling dispute.
  • Encourage the dads in your company to take flexible or reduced hour options to help support caregiving needs in their homes. This is not a female issue—it’s a family issue too.
  • Employees and employers may not be aware of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, wherein parents are entitled to up to 12 weeks of leave at partial pay if a child’s daycare or school is closed. This is paid by the government, not the company, and is available to anyone in a company of 500 employees or fewer. It does not need to be taken consecutively, so it may help families manage inconsistent school and work schedules, or fill in gaps with unexpected closures or illnesses/quarantines. The benefits expire at the end of 2020.

While we all navigate “the new normal” which is anything but, it’s wise to keep a sense of humor when possible. A childhood friend who is now a vice president of a major landscape architecture firm relayed a recent Zoom incident. She was mid-sentence when the client interrupted: “Cheri, is that a naked man behind you?” “Oh, no,” she replied. “That’s just my teenage son in a towel rifling through the clean laundry pile.”