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With their kids’ school now closed, Carmen Ramirez and her husband, Cesar, have had to rearrange their work schedules so that one of them is always home to watch their two little girls and a boy.
It would be an understatement to say that it hasn’t been easy. Carmen leaves for her job as a nurse every day at 4 p.m., the same time Cesar gets back. He heads out to the mechanic shop a few hours after she pulls in the driveway at 3 a.m. Each tries to help with homework and baths and snack time and tantrums.
That daily juggle is their solution amid the coronavirus outbreak, during which neither has been allowed time off or is able to work from their home in Kearns. The parents still have to clock in, and they have no extra money to cover child care while they do.
“Who’s going to pay for that?” asked Carmen Ramirez. “We’re not getting two months of free rent or free bills during this.”
That same bind is impacting many working families throughout Utah — and the country — as the pandemic closes schools to slow the spread and sends kids home to study. Some, like Ramirez, are shifting their hours to cover the difference. Others are leaving children with grandparents or neighbors.
Even if a few can afford child care, many of those options have also shut down.
Tracy Gruber, the director of Utah’s Office of Child Care, said the closures have put hundreds if not thousands of parents here in a lurch. And it disproportionately affects those employed in the service industry or health care and families in lower-income brackets.
“This is such a challenging time,” she said. “I don’t even know what else to say. It’s just so hard.”
Through her office, Gruber is trying to consolidate what few options are left. She said there are some — though they won’t work for everyone, and other options are still being figured out.
Helping parents in health care first
One of those efforts will help parents who work on the front lines in hospitals and emergency rooms, employees who are considered “essential” during the crisis.
Gruber said that is the priority right now. Her office is working on a system in which those individuals can request care and immediately be lined up with a provider.
Until that’s developed, though — and it should be released shortly — those parents can call 1-800-670-1552 to talk to someone in the office directly.
Niki, a nurse who asked to be identified only by her first name due to her employer’s rules about speaking to the media, said the past few weeks have been incredibly busy at work, with people worried that they have the coronavirus. But it got harder this week with her son being home from school.
She’s a single mom, and her 10-year-old boy has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
He’s old enough to stay home alone while she works, Niki said, but he can’t get his school lessons done on his own. He usually takes medication to help with his focus, but Niki can’t give it to him in the morning because she’s gone. It’s too late in the day for it when she’s back at 3 p.m. or 5 p.m. And she’s usually too tired by then to try to persuade him to sit down and complete a math workbook.
“His teacher is supportive, but I’m very concerned about how the next few weeks are going to go,” Niki said. “This is putting an immense burden on me. I don’t know how we’ll manage.”
Niki doesn’t have family to watch her son nearby where they live in Salt Lake County. She doesn’t have enough money to send him to a day care. And she can’t stay home from work.
“As a single parent, this is too much for one person,” she said. “I just don’t know what to do.”
Providing subsidies for low-income families
Gruber said not only do people like Niki and Ramirez qualify for help because they work as nurses, but the state also has a subsidy program that already is up and running. Families who make up to 85% of the state median income limit — or roughly $44,000 a year — are eligible, and can go to jobs.utah.gov to apply.
Kids have to be under age 13 and, if there are two parents, both have to be working.
Ramirez said the program sounds like a godsend. She has relied on having her children — 11-year-old Gabriela, 8-year-old Julio and her 2-year-old toddler — at school and preschool while she and her husband work. But the kids being home during the virus outbreak has turned their schedules upside down.
“There weren’t too many other options,” Ramirez added. “There is no way that I can leave my kids home during the day — they’re not old enough yet.”
Applications can be renewed every 12 months.
Finding sitters and support elsewhere
Gruber realizes that not every parent can or will be helped with the services that the Utah Office of Child Care has left to offer as the pandemic continues to spread. Several day care facilities have closed and others are at capacity — with the state’s guidelines to avoid large groups and socially distance. For the ones that are still open, Gruber can help place kids.
But for those that can, she suggests reaching out to family or neighbors for help watching kids. “We’re asking for families to leverage their networks and support as much as possible,” she added.
Anna Arevalo is currently watching her niece and nephew — in addition to her own son — while their parents have to continue at their construction jobs. She’s balancing the three kids while working from her West Jordan home as a data analyst.
It’s chaotic, she said with a laugh, but the only option. As she talked, children giggled and screamed in the background.
For Chelsea Devey, the virus has actually made family care no longer an option. She used to drop her 2-year-old daughter off at her mother-in-law’s house. But now the grandmother, in her 60s, is watching three other kids in the extended family and Devey’s worried about how vulnerable she already is to catching the virus.
So Devey is taking care of her daughter and working from home while her husband tries to keep his restaurant afloat in St. George. The family worries that with dine-in options closed by the state, the business could have to shut down permanently.
Devey said the illness has continued to replace one fear with another. First, she was concerned her daughter would catch it on the playground, then she was scrambling to stay home to watch her. She’s afraid of her mother-in-law getting it. She doesn’t want her husband to lose his dream.
“It’s just insane,” she added. “All of this is insane.”
In other families, both parents are working from home while their kids do school online. And it’s not easy either.
“Every second, it’s like ‘mom, mom, mom,’” said Melissa Kelsey, “and I can’t get anything done.”
Kelsey is a photographer and has had to cancel or postpone shoots. Her two kids normally go to Eastwood Elementary in Salt Lake City. She and her husband are trying to take turns and support each other.
Balance is the best answer for now, Gruber said, though it will likely look different for every family. For working parents, she added, child care is and will continue to be one of the biggest challenges during the pandemic.
“The state fully recognizes how challenging this time is for families with young children,” she added. “We are doing what we can to make sure that we are addressing that challenge to the extent possible given the resources we have.”
With the outbreak just beginning in Utah, there’s no telling how long parents will need to find solutions.