Since Carolina Valero’s children were sent home from school last March, child care has been a struggle. She has three children, all attending Clarke County schools, who have bounced between remote learning and hybrid classes over the past year.
“It was the unknown,” Valero said. “I really didn’t know when they were going to go back to school. It [could’ve been] tomorrow, or it can be maybe next year, next fall.”
Throughout the pandemic, child care has been a challenge for her family. Both Valero and her husband work, and her children need to be cared for and supervised as they navigate online learning.
She isn’t alone. Child care, which was already expensive and hard to access before the pandemic, has evolved into a major issue for parents. An August 2020 survey by the Bipartisan Policy Center found more than 70% of parents reported their day care had reduced capacity or closed. According to a survey released by the Biden Administration this month, only 34% of school-age children were learning full time in the classroom.
With children suddenly home, parents are now facing a unique set of challenges. They are being asked to be workers, teachers and caretakers all at once, and many are feeling the pressure. The situation in Athens is no different.
For Valero, one of the biggest challenges has been taking care of her 7-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. Normally, she would be under the care of teachers and trained staff at her elementary school. However, since the pandemic began, she’s been at home.
Valero said her daughter has difficulty paying attention for long periods of time, making it hard for her to focus during remote classes. She is also spending lots of time in front of the computer to attend her speech and occupational therapy appointments. Valero worries about the stress the increased screen time may put on her daughter.
In addition, Valero has two other children learning remotely. Her oldest, who is 9 years old, was struggling to keep her camera on during Zoom classes in accordance with her teacher’s classroom policies.
“I think she’s just having anxiety from being all day on the computer,” Valero said. “I’m sure there are many kids at school that are suffering.”
Valero said her children were offered the option to switch to a hybrid format in November, in which they would attend school in person a few days a week, but she declined. Her 7-year-old daughter had heart surgery over the summer, and amid rising case numbers, Valero worried about her daughter’s health if she were exposed to COVID-19.
Ashley Pelham, whose children attend school in Jackson County, also struggled with remote learning. Her 7-year-old son was distressed by the online learning environment and would sometimes have emotional outbursts while preparing for class.
During the spring, Pelham’s son was falling behind due to his stress regarding digital schooling. Fortunately, Pelham said she worked with his teacher in the fall to help relieve some of his anxiety and help him catch up.
Her oldest child, however, presents a different challenge. He is able to work independently and keep up with his classes, but she said he’s struggled emotionally.
“It just hurt me and my kids because that wasn’t the plan in my mind when I thought about education, giving birth and raising my children,” Pelham said.
Working while parenting
Pelham, who is a single parent, said she also struggled with working while her children were home. She runs a home cleaning business and said she normally works five days a week, cleaning about two homes per day. However, during the fall, her children were attending school in a hybrid format and were home Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. That left her only two days a week in which she didn’t have to worry about child care.
“It’s already hard enough to find a sitter for one kid during a weekday,” Pelham said. “I can’t imagine finding one for three. That’s tough.”
It was even harder in the spring of 2020, when Pelham’s children’s schools were fully remote. Pelham also said many of her customers were worried about letting people in their home and cancelled cleanings, causing her income to drop.
Valero said she’s found it hard to work while caring for her children as well. She runs a bakery from home and has only been able to work on holidays. Her husband works as well and spends most days on his computer. She said he tries to help, but because of his schedule, he doesn’t have time.
Pelham and Valero are just two of many parents who have struggled to continue working while children are at home. Between March and October 2020, the share of working parents reporting challenges in caring for children during the pandemic rose from 38% to 52%, according to Pew Research Center. Juggling work and child care has been especially difficult for women, who are nearly three times more likely than men to be out of work due to child care demands, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Focusing on the future
In spite of the challenges, Valero is hopeful about the future. Her children switched to a hybrid format in January and are able to attend in-person classes a few times a week. She hopes people will look at the past year and work harder to advocate for children and families who are struggling.
“Hopefully this experience will get those persons in charge to take into account not only kids in general, but kids who are suffering the most,” she said. “Have options to serve every kid, no abandoning kids that don’t do well in [an online] environment.”
Pelham said she’s been taking everything two weeks at a time. She’s relying on a network of close friends to help take care of her children and support her and has started to get back to her normal work schedule.
Overall, she has strived to stay positive throughout the pandemic. She hopes her children look at this time and learn to embrace uncertainty with positivity and strength.
“When the pandemic happened, it really helped me realize that my three-year, five-year and 10-year goals ain’t nothing,” Pelham said. “Anything can change drastically at a moment’s notice.”