What do working parents do when coronavirus closes local schools?

"I'm a single mom and work all day. I'm not quite sure I'm going to get my boys to do online learning while I'm gone," said one mother.
Image: A US flag is reflected in a window as signs announcing a closure and cancelled activities are pictured at Ferrucci Junior High School after two schools were closed for cleaning due to flu-like symptoms of a relative in Puyallup
A sign announcing that school is closed and that activities are canceled at Ferrucci Junior High School in Puyallup, Washington, on Monday, March 2, 2020.Jason Redmond / Reuters

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By Ben Popken, Michael Cappetta and Stephanie Ruhle

Working families are at risk of bearing more of the brunt of the fallout from the coronavirus epidemic as school closings threaten to upend daily life.

According to a new U.N. report, nearly 300 million students worldwide are affected by the educational disruptions. While school closings were limited to China just a few weeks ago, a national shutdown has hit Italy, and some closings have started in the United States, with parents told to brace for more.

Los Angeles declared a state of emergency Wednesday and told parents to prepare for potential school closings after a California patient died. Some schools have already closed in Washington state, where there have been 10 coronavirus deaths, the most in the country, and in New York state, which has 22 confirmed cases.

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Parents are already starting to get anxious about how to deal with the upheaval. In a Seattle suburb, the North Shore School District sent a letter notifying parents that schools would be closed for at least 14 days and that schools would begin conducting remote learning Monday.

"I don't know how I'm going to do this guys!" one mother posted on another mom's Facebook post after learning that schools for her three children would be closed. "I'm a single mom and work all day. I'm not quite sure I'm going to get my boys to do online learning while I'm gone."

A growing number of companies have announced that they're allowing staff to work from home or exploring plans to do so. Banking giant JPMorgan asked 10 percent of its U.S. workforce to stay home for a day to test its contingency plan response. Tech companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter have encouraged some employees to work from home or to test their ability to connect to secured company systems from home to prepare.

Yet while white-collar workers may have the luxury of being able to work from their kitchen tables on their laptops, many lower-wage jobs require workers to be present.

"Low-wage jobs are not ones that can be done remotely," said Judy Conti, government affairs director for the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit advocacy group for low-wage workers. "Someone has to show up to cook the hamburger and wash the floor."

That leaves families facing school closings and living paycheck to paycheck with the choice of taking care of their children or putting food on their table.

"It could be utterly devastating," Conti said in an interview.

Workers may also have little — if any — paid or unpaid leave. If they do have sick leave, taking care of their children during a broader health scare may not qualify. In the best-case scenario, they may have only a few days available.

"Do they have money for other child care, and if not, do they leave perhaps young children alone for longer than should be so they can keep their job?" Conti asked.

Employers who don't know when their employees will get back to work may choose to lay them off. Working families earning lower wages have fewer protections unless they belong to a union that helps guarantee them.

Children who qualify for free breakfast and lunch at their school may miss out, while their parents who stay home to take care of them may be making less money to put food on the table.

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In the absence of a robust federal response, such as a federal disaster declaration that would mitigate the situation by unlocking aid programs like disaster assistance, the best bet for families and communities may be to turn to one another and have parents take turns watching several children while the others work, Conti said. "It's an exposure of all the holes in the social safety net," she said.

But a lack of options has parents scrambling to make do.

"It's pretty dire circumstances right now for a lot of parents who are finding themselves in situations they never imagined," said Carrie Heselton Hopperstad, a Seattle-area mother of three. She said members of a local Facebook group were helping parents find last-minute child care.

"The community is coming together to rally around," she said.