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Sharlotte Stapleton, pictured with her husband, Cleveland, and son, Kvian, has been out of work since mid-March, when she was laid off from her job at a Natchez, Mississippi hotel. For families like the Stapletons, child care challenges during the coronavirus pandemic can make it hard to return to work, especially if their jobs are outside the home.

Before she was laid off in March, Sharlotte Stapleton’s 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift at the Magnolia Bluffs Hotel in Natchez was a near perfect match to her son Kvian’s school day. She wasn’t at the mercy of long wait lists for after-school programs and didn’t have to scramble to find affordable private options, a rarity in Mississippi where working parents are often forced to put after-school arrangements together piecemeal.

Then Kvian’s school, like most across the state, announced students wouldn’t come back after spring break. There were too many risks due to the coronavirus pandemic. By the end of March, the hotel had shut down, too.

On April 27, Gov. Tate Reeves began reversing some aspects of the state’s stay-at-home order. Her hotel didn’t reopen, but Stapleton now had the option of looking for another job. There was just one problem: With schools closed and most of the local child care centers in Natchez either closed or only serving the children of essential workers, she had nowhere to put Kvian.

Her husband’s schedule as a truck driver made it hard for him to take off and stay with their son during the day. Usually, Stapleton’s mother Hattie would step in. But at 72 years old, she was vulnerable to complications from the virus and she was also caring for Stapleton’s frail 92-year-old grandmother.

Nearly 200,000 Mississippians with children between ages of 6 to 12 work.

The idea of Kvian spending his days with them, even if he stayed in a separate room, seemed too unsafe.

Stapleton stayed at home with Kvian as state officials rolled out the next phase of reopening. The Sunday before Mother’s Day, the state’s restaurants were given the greenlight to reopen their dining rooms. The opening of gyms, hair salons, tattoo parlors and casinos soon followed.

Stapleton haggled with the state’s unemployment office until her jobless benefits arrived, but she was also growing frustrated. She’d heard that some people were saying folks in her situation would rather stay at home collecting benefits, even if their jobs returned, and felt insulted. 

“Nobody asked for this,” she said. “(But they) want to say, ‘People don’t want to go back to work.’”

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Even if she tried to find something until the hotel could reopen, day shifts were off-limits and she worried her efforts would be fruitless.

“You’re stuck,” she said.

The Magnolia State’s road to economic recovery has been pitched as a matter of disinfecting workspaces, conducting daily temperature checks, encouraging social distancing and using masks to keep workers and customers safe — and staying patient as the state enters a painful recession. But fearing for their health isn’t the only factor forcing Mississippians to make tough choices about whether they’ll return to their jobs. In Mississippi and dozens of other states, governors are allowing businesses to reopen even as schools remain closed for the last few weeks of the school year. 

You’re stuck.”

Sharlotte Stapleton, laid-off hotel worker and mother, on trying to work without child care.

For parents now working from home, school closures that started in mid-March have left them stretched thin as they stand-in as their child’s teachers while managing job demands; parents unable to work remotely might not be able to take their kids on the job at all. And although Mississippi will allow school districts to offer summer school starting June 1, it’s unclear if local school leaders will reopen their campuses and how many students they might accommodate. The virus has also shut down hundreds of child care centers that might ordinarily provide care. Alternative child care arrangements, including sitters or family members, are often complicated by the fear of spreading and contracting the coronavirus — or are simply unavailable.

Some parents have found it impossible to show up to work at all. For all the talk of getting America back to work, the reality remains the same: Working parents can’t come back if they don’t have somewhere safe to place their kids.

Right now, Mississippi’s struggling child care industry can’t fill the gap. The state asked nonprofits and churches in April to consider staffing emergency center child care centers for the children of essential workers to little avail. As of mid-May, only two emergency sites were up and running. Meanwhile, more than 800 traditional child care facilities were closed statewide.

Almost half of the centers that closed their doors accept child care certificates meant to help low-income families as they work, train for a career or go to school. The closures indicate that, while parents from all income brackets are struggling to make child care arrangements, low-wage workers are being hit harder by the fallout.

More than 800 traditional child care facilities have shut down in Mississippi.

That’s a concern for advocates, who say such parents are more likely to work in the service sector, where jobs often have either rigid or unpredictable schedules and lack protections such as leave time — paid or not. Through the Families First Corona Response Act federal aid package, some workers staying at home to care for their children can receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave. The expanded safety net, though, doesn’t apply to workers at private companies with 500 or more employees. Those who are laid off, like Stapleton, may be eligible for an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits — but only to the end of July.

Katherine Gallagher Robbins with the Center for Law and Social Policy, an advocacy group for low-income families, said that while schools aren’t viewed as child care providers in the traditional sense, elementary and middle school campuses do function as a “work support” for parents.

“The bottom line is without childcare America doesn’t work.”

Katherine Gallagher Robbins, child care and early education director at the Center for Law and Social Policy, an advocacy group for low-income families.

“The bottom line is without child care, America doesn’t work,” she said.

Gallagher Robbins isn’t arguing that states should rush students back to school or child care centers before public health experts, families and child care providers believe it’s safe, she said. She wants policymakers to think deeply about the help families and the child care industry will need to weather this crisis.

In the state’s early response to the coronavirus, Gov. Reeves defined child care providers as essential businesses, exempt from the state’s lockdown. Some child care providers looking after the children of health care workers have also been eligible for higher reimbursements during the pandemic. Still, he acknowledged in late May that the state had “more work to do” to solve access challenges, saying that “if you don’t have somewhere for your child to go during work, it’s virtually impossible for you to go to work.”

“We know that is a challenge,” he said. “It is something that is a challenge during normal times, but it’s even more of a challenge today and we’re committed to continuing to find innovative solutions.” 

For many families, finding adequate and affordable child care before the pandemic was already difficult. The average cost of infant child care exceeds college tuition in more than 30 states, according to findings from the Economic Policy Institute.

Almost half of centers that have closed their doors in Mississippi accept child care certificates meant to help low-income families as they work, train for a career or go to school.

“When your kid goes to public school for the first time, that’s the biggest raise you probably ever get. This huge family budget item falls off your balance sheet,” said Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at The University of Minnesota.

Now, assuming they can find a center, working parents around the country still have to make tough choices about whether they can absorb weeks of unexpected full-time child care tuition during school closures. In states like Mississippi, where schools have already let out for the summer, it’s also unclear if day camps can meet families’ needs. A YMCA in the Jackson suburb of Clinton has already drastically reduced how many kids it will accept. Staff originally planned for a headcount of 130; now they’ll accept only 30.

Grandparents can help anchor families in the summer, but the coronavirus has complicated what used to be a simple choice. Cassandra Welchlin, lead organizer of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, said women of color in low-wage jobs in particular rely on family networks for help. She said many are agonizing about whether to return to work and potentially place the loved ones who act as caregivers of their children at risk.

“The anxiety level around that is really heightened, but families are going to take care of families,” she said. “They are not going to allow that mom to be without.”

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With its palm trees and neon marquee, the Magnolia Bluffs Hotel where Stapleton worked looks like the old port city’s festive answer to Vegas. Much of the entertainment took place at the hotel’s casino, overlooking the Mississippi River. Stapleton, who previously worked at another gaming site in town, preferred her front-desk job, where she saw guests on their best behavior preparing to check in or check out. She’d worked there for four years and loved it.

Stapleton likes to say, “It doesn’t take much to smile at a person.” It’s a motto that her regulars and first-time guests alike picked up on. So many of them wrote letters praising Stapleton to the hotel’s owner, she earned a promotion.

“I was definitely scared: Will they hire me back? It’s just difficult to make a choice.”

Sharlotte Stapleton, a hotel worker laid off in mid-March.

As the weeks passed, Stapleton thought about what she would do if higher-ups called her back. She worried the hotel would reopen before she found child care. The state’s unemployment rate surged by 600 percent. There were plenty of people in town hungry for jobs. Great customer service or not, she didn’t think the hotel would delay moving on just for her sake.

“I was definitely scared: Will they hire me back? It’s just difficult to make a choice,” she said.

Nearly 200,000 Mississippians with children between the ages of 6 to 12 are working parents. School closures and a hollowed-out child care landscape have backed many of these parents into a corner about whether they can return to work at all, according to C. Nicole Mason, CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“The big open secret is this will disproportionately impact low-income mothers and families,” Mason said. “These are the people who cannot stay home, but have to stay at home.”

“The big open secret is this will disproportionately impact low-income mothers and families. These are the people who cannot stay home but have to stay at home.”

C. Nicole Mason, CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

A report released from the institute this month, “Holding up Half the Sky,” found that Mississippi’s share of “breadwinner mothers” was second only to the District of Columbia. When it comes to the percentage of women living in poverty, Mississippi also ranks only behind the Beltway. And women are heavily concentrated in the state’s service workforce. Eighty percent of the state’s cashiers are women, Mississippi Today reported, for example. Many of those working at grocery stores were likely never sent home. But women in these jobs don’t have much leverage to negotiate taking off when schools close and other child care options are shuttered.

“For workers who work in the service industry flexibility is important during this time,” Mason said. But the reality is “there is no flexibility,” she said. “You either show up or you don’t. There’s no job security.”

That’s been the experience for several workers The Hechinger Report spoke with who hadn’t been on the job long enough to build up paid leave. Shaundra, who requested that The Hechinger Report use her first-name only for fear of upsetting her employer, is a single mom working in the Jackson area who has had to cut back hours to stay at home with her son. The boy has a health condition, which ruled out the possibility of placing him a child care center during school closures. On the few days a relative can’t watch him, Shaundra stays at home with him. But missing a day or two of pay each week quickly started adding up.

Related: An online program for preschoolers expands because of coronavirus

Advocates say there are crucial work support and safety net policies, along with investments in the child care industry, that could help families like Shaundra’s get through the pandemic’s disruption.

More than 330,000 child care workers disappeared from the nation’s payrolls in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census. Advocates aren’t confident those jobs will come back without significant financial support from the federal government. Child care providers and many Democrats in the Senate are pushing for a $50 billion bailout. An analysis from Sojourner and Rebecca Ulrich of CLASP estimates the child care industry needs considerably more.  The analysis projects $9.6 billion per month will help closed providers stay afloat and allow open providers to operate free emergency child care for the estimated 6 million children of essential workers over the next six months.

“When your kid goes to public school for the first time, that’s the biggest raise you probably ever get. This huge family budget item falls off your balance sheet.”

Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at The University of Minnesota.

“You’re obviously not going to wave a wand and have worker protections, but in the short-term we can institute emergency levels of relief,” Mason said.

For Stapleton, the Natchez hotel worker, an answer came only through more hardship. On March 17, Stapleton’s grandmother died of natural causes. Though she didn’t die of Covid-19, the pandemic had still managed to take so much. She had nine living children, but just 10 family members could be present for the graveside service. It troubled Stapleton. Her grandmother’s life had been so full, yet this was how they were forced to say goodbye.

For weeks, Stapleton had wondered if she could just “make something work” if she got her job back. On the Thursday before Memorial Day Weekend, customers lined up outside the Magnolia Bluffs Casino in anticipation of its 8 a.m. opening. Stapleton received word its sister hotel could reopen in June.

Stapleton wants to do her best to protect her mom. But if she gets the call to return, she plans on leaving Kvian with her and going in.

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

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Bracey Harris is a staff writer. Before joining The Hechinger Report, she covered politics and education for the Clarion Ledger where she also focused on government accountability for the paper’s investigative...

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