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Since the pandemic, babies and kids of all sizes are ending up on their parents’ work calls. Credit: Miguel Pereira/Getty Images

Last week, a memo from Florida State University contained a line that sent chills through working parents everywhere: “Parents will no longer be allowed to care for children while working remotely.”

Childcare during the coronavirus was already daunting enough, but as numbers spike and some states scale back on opening, parents who’ve been counting on a reprieve this fall now have the added worry about what they will do with their kids in the coming months if schools and daycares remain shuttered, reopen only part-time or seem unsafe. Gag them? Hide them in closets or under beds? One wondered on Twitter if school would be offering cages or dumpsters for storing or disposing students at reduced rates.

The backlash resulted in Florida State’s backtracking a bit — but the memo struck a nerve, said Melissa Boteach, vice president for income security and child care/early learning with the National Women’s Law Center. She said about 50 friends had forwarded it to her.

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“I think it describes the life and the fears of every working parent, particularly moms who are more likely to be the ones to make career sacrifices when there is a caregiving conflict,” Boteach said. “A fear has been stricken in every working mother’s heart in terms of their ability to handle all of this.”

The Florida State memo also sparked panic because of the dwindling options for working parents everywhere, with child care costs soaring, schools and day cares shut — or closing for good. More than half of child care facilities are closed and at risk of being lost forever, making already difficult child care decisions even more fraught, as we’ve been finding at The Hechinger Report.

That’s meant little kids popping up on Zoom everywhere. Since the pandemic began, online meetings in our Hechinger newsroom have included the occasional wave, whine or wails that inevitably populate the screen.

“A fear has been stricken in every working mothers heart in terms of their ability to handle all of this.”

– Melissa Boteach, vice president for income security and child care/early learning, National Women’s Law Center.

During a virtual staff meeting last week, a first-grader exhorted her mom to stop talking so loudly, presumably so she could hear the video she had been watching, put on to keep her quiet. At times, parents excuse themselves, leaving their screen box temporarily empty. One editor dubs it the “Baby Zoom.”  

None of this is terribly funny, though. There’s stress on those parents’ faces, something anyone juggling work and child care can relate to. And now they’re also navigating home schooling, difficult conversations around racism and, in some cases, added financial worries. “I feel exhausted and frayed by this new expectation that I add homeschooling to the already overwhelming demands of parenting and working,” our executive editor, Sarah Garland, recently wrote.

Related: Desperate parents need help as coronavirus upends our lives

Summer, once a time for outdoor pools, camps and playdates, has instead become a time of fear and paralysis for working parents. The playdates have been banned, the summer school has gone remote. By the end of July, many who lost jobs will likely see their federal unemployment benefits expire; those who have positions to return to will face tough decisions about whether to go back.

A recent memo from Florida State University has left parents wondering if they’ll need to start hiding their kids while working. Credit: Tom Penpark/Getty Images

And no one really knows for sure if or how schools will reopen — making the equation far more fraught and worrisome for low-income moms in particular. They have been hit harder in a worsening economy, while also being largely been left out of federal relief packages.   

“Oh man, it’s been really hard, it’s such a challenge,” Annisha Thomas, a single mother of two in Tennessee who works at a Waffle House while attending community college, told me at the start of the pandemic.

Even moms who acknowledge their privilege are demanding solutions. “In the Covid-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job,” food blogger Deb Perleman wrote. “Why isn’t anyone talking about this? Why are we not hearing a primal scream so deafening that no plodding policy can be implemented without addressing the people buried by it?”

Boteach is talking about it plenty, and says she is heartened by the renewed empathy and rallies of support for working parents. “The tight walk between balancing caregiving and parenting is laid bare for all, on just how underinvested we are in our caregiving infrastructure and what that means for parents and the economy,” she told me.

One reason why the outcry hasn’t been louder, of course, is the parents struggling the most are too busy working and just trying to get by. Often, they choose less than optimal day care situations for their children because they have no other choice. A recent Hechinger Report review of hundreds of pages of child care inspection and incident reports from three states over the past year found frequent staffing issues, routinely inadequate facilities and too little attention paid to health and safety. 

Hechinger reporters knocked on the doors of more than a dozen home-based child cares in western and northern Michigan and found many providers struggling to survive themselves: Child care workers often live near the poverty level and say they get insufficient government support. The federal government provided child care subsidies to just one in six children eligible to receive them in 2015, according to the most recent figures available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These vouchers rarely cover the costs of high-quality care. 

Of course, there have been some calls for states and the federal government to do better, including virtual rallies and letters to legislators seeking relief for the child care industry.

Related: Broken systems ensure low-quality, limit access

In the meantime, memos like the one sent by Florida State, in an area where coronavirus infection rates are shattering records, will only add to the confusion. When I contacted Renisha Gibbs, the associate vice president for human resources at FSU who wrote the memo, my request was forwarded on to another university official. The school had already gone into full damage control mode.

It was clear they had some explaining to do.

“As FSU looks toward resuming normal campus operations — as conditions allow — we felt a responsibility to provide our employees notice of our intention to return to our standard telecommuting agreement that requires dependent or child care arrangements while working remotely,” Jill Elish, the associate director of news and research communications, told me in an email. “This is a common requirement while working remotely and is typical of other universities in Florida and around the country.”

She added that of course the school will work to accommodate staff. “If employees do not have daycare options or choose not to send their children to school in the fall, they should work with their supervisors to identify a flexible work schedule that allows them to fulfill their work duties and their family responsibilities, such as homeschooling and providing care for minor children,” Elish wrote.

Since many of us won’t be working in offices regularly until there is a vaccine, we’re all going to need a lot more tolerance and flexibility. And please, let’s not hide the children. Let’s come up with policies to better support all working parents.

This story about childcare for working parents was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for commentary writing by the New York Press Club....

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