Teaching Profession

‘Beyond Tired and Stressed': Teachers With Kids Strained By Lack of Child Care

By Madeline Will — August 31, 2020 9 min read
Kindergarten teacher Marisa Martinez holds her daughter Estrella, 1, while her other daughter, Xavia, 11, records her instructing a class to be posted online from their home in San Mateo County, Calif. Also pictured is their pet pig Rebecca.

Working parents across professions were forced to balance the demands of their jobs and their children’s remote education in the spring, and teachers were no exception. But this new school year has created even more logistical hurdles for teachers with kids at home.

In schools that have adopted a hybrid model of instruction where groups of students alternate days of in-person instruction, teachers are often expected to be in their classrooms full time. And in the schools that are beginning an entirely virtual fall semester, teachers will have to spend more time doing live instruction on video than they did in the spring. Yet in many cases, they will still be without child care.

Nearly half of teachers have children—from preschoolers to teenagers—at home, according to an analysis by researchers at the Brookings Institution. For many of these teachers, the spring semester was stressful: A recent survey of nearly 8,000 teachers in nine states found that 40 percent said caretaking responsibilities for children and/or other dependent adults made it difficult to do their jobs, and 16 percent said they were unable to balance their work with other responsibilities at home, according to an analysis by researchers including Brown University’s Matthew Kraft.

“When you’re [teaching] from home and you have four kids under the age of 10, if you don’t have a spouse, babysitter, or someone to sit there with them, it’s really difficult,” said Sherri Dutton, a 2nd grade teacher in Las Vegas. “As a teacher, I have to be available online to facilitate the instruction. It makes it so tricky to go between my classroom online and my own kids’ education.”

In some cases last spring, districts even told teachers they could not work and watch their children at the same time.

Now, in hopes of making this school year more manageable, some districts are providing child care for teachers, while others are letting teachers’ children get priority for full-time, in-person instruction. Other districts are allowing—or requiring—teachers to work from their empty classrooms and to bring their kids if they need to. That option has been praised by some teachers, who say it gives them access to more reliable internet and a sense of structure for school-aged children. Others have balked at that idea, saying it puts them and their kids at risk for COVID-19 and shakes up any routine for small children.

In Massachusetts, Jeffrey Riley, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, wrote in an Aug. 21 memo that the state education department expects teachers in districts that are providing remote instruction to teach from their empty classrooms. He wrote that this approach will provide more consistency for students, allow teachers access to more instructional supplies and reliable internet, and foster more collaboration among educators.

Teachers who are parents in need of child care should be able to bring their kids to school with them, Riley said. Districts should also prioritize children of teachers—in addition to students with disabilities, English-language learners, and other high-needs students—for full-time, in-person learning, he wrote. The department will release more detailed guidance for teachers with children at home soon, Riley added.

Still, teachers across the state are “furious” with this directive, said Merrie Najimy, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. They find it “patronizing” to be told where and how to teach, she said, and it’s added an extra burden on teachers who are parents.

She has heard from teachers who have said they don’t know how their toddlers will be able to nap in a bright classroom while they’re teaching virtual classes. One school counselor asked how she is supposed to preserve her students’ privacy if her own child is in the room with her during counseling sessions. Other teachers are worried about exposing their children to COVID-19.

“It’s heartless and reckless,” Najimy said. “Are their infant children supposed to crawl around on the classroom floor?”

Local unions are negotiating with districts about whether teachers will be required to come into classrooms to teach, she said.

Kristen Picard, an 8th grade English teacher in Northampton, Mass., is still waiting for her district and union to finalize an agreement on the details of remote instruction. But so far, her district superintendent has said it will be voluntary for teachers to work from empty school buildings.

That’s a relief, Picard said, because she doesn’t feel comfortable bringing her 4-month-old daughter into a school building with poor ventilation that’s filled with other people. She was already uncomfortable sending her 4-year-old son to daycare this fall—but she felt like it was the only option, given her teaching schedule and her husband’s 14-hour workdays.

“Ultimately, I said, if I kept both my kids home, I’d feel like I was failing my son and failing my students because there’s just no way,” she said.

It will still be a challenge with just the baby home: Picard is teaching four 83-minute classes a day. “Balancing all of that with breastfeeding and pumping—I just don’t know what it looks like,” she said. “I don’t know how well it will work out.”

And there hasn’t been clear guidance from her state or district for teachers who are dealing with these child-care issues, she said.

About 80 percent of teachers are women, “and the ones who are making the decisions are not, and the feeling is just, ‘They’ll figure it out, they always do,’” Picard said. “And we do—but it comes with a lot of stress.”

‘Lighten the Load’

Some local teachers’ unions are negotiating how their districts can support teachers with children. For instance, the Los Angeles’ teachers’ union secured child care for its teachers who are working on school campuses. The agreement with the district also states that teachers working remotely “shall not be subject to discipline if and when instruction is occasionally interrupted” by their children or other family circumstances.

And some districts are preemptively finding solutions for their staff. Grant Rivera, the superintendent of the Marietta City, Ga., school district, knew balancing work and child care had to have been a challenge for his teachers with kids in the spring and would continue to be one as the district starts the fall semester remotely.

“Teachers largely internalize the stress and just try to make it work,” he said. “It was a conversation that originated in central office from basically a position of common sense: If they’re trying to juggle their own child at the same time as they’re trying to teach someone else’s, what can we do to lighten the load?”

This fall, the district began offering child care for teachers’ kids, aged 4 to 12. There are 92 children enrolled in the program, and they each have Chromebooks to participate in remote learning. (Only five children are allowed in a classroom at once to ensure social distancing, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.) The district reassigned school staff whose jobs are no longer needed during remote instruction—like bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and some substitute teachers—to oversee the program.

For the first month, teachers had to pay $60 a week per child, which Rivera knew was a large, unanticipated expense. He asked community partners for help, and a local church has made a donation that will reduce the cost to $30 a week.

Some teachers in the Marietta City district have chosen to work in their empty classrooms, and the district has made sure that those teachers’ children are in the same building as they are so teachers can check in on their kids and eat lunch with them. Other teachers wanted to drop their kids off at the school building and then go back home to teach remotely.

Rivera said he doesn’t have a preference on what teachers do, and if they want to teach remotely with their kids at home with them, that’s OK, too.

“It’s nothing more than a service. … If this makes your life easier, we’re here to help,” he said. “We care about our staff as people first and educators second.”

Making It Work

In the spring, the Madison, Wis., school district told teachers that they “cannot watch [their] children and work at the same time,” and must secure child care either outside or inside the home. Teachers were outraged, The Capital Times reported, and the district softened its policy, asking staff to “plan ahead as much as possible for child care in [their] home so that interruptions are minimized.”

This fall, the district hasn’t issued a similar requirement, said Andy Waity, the president of Madison Teachers Inc., the local union. (A district spokesperson didn’t respond to Education Week’s requests for comment.)

“The expectation is that folks are doing their work, and they’re finding some way to arrange for support of their own children, and of course that presents a huge challenge for people,” he said.

Waity said there’s been an increase in teachers applying for leave. The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act grants workers who need to care for a child whose school or child-care provider is closed or unavailable due to COVID-19 up to 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds pay.

Other teachers are just trying to make it all work. Greg, who asked for his last name to be withheld, and his wife both teach at the same private school in Florida where their three kids attend. In the spring, he and his wife would teach their Zoom classes in the mornings, and then deliver the provided curriculum for their then-kindergartner and 2nd grader in the afternoons. (Their other child, a middle schooler, was able to work more independently.)

It was chaotic but manageable, Greg said. But this fall, he and his wife are expected to teach until 3 pm. Their kids also have a full schedule of remote learning planned—and teaching their kids after teaching their students didn’t seem feasible.

“We end at 3 o’clock, and all of a sudden, now we’re going to start helping the little ones?” he said. “How long can the day be?”

Instead, he and his wife have hired a family friend to come for three hours a day to help the kids with their remote learning. At $20 an hour, it’s a large expense—especially since Greg’s secondary income stream from tutoring has shriveled up since the start of the pandemic—but he felt like it was the only option.

Meanwhile, a middle school teacher in North Carolina, who asked that her name be withheld, said she’s taking it day by day. She’s working in her empty classroom alongside her two kids, because she has more reliable internet and access to more devices at school than she does at home.

Still, she said, teaching her classes while her kids are on their own video calls in the same room can be chaotic. And she has to take several breaks throughout the day from her own work to help her kids, one of whom has ADHD, do their lessons.

“It feels very scattered [and] piecemeal,” she said. In an email, she added, “Right now, it’s working, but I am beyond tired and stressed. I’m not sure how effective I am as a teacher and as a good mother.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2020 edition of Education Week as ‘There’s Just No Way': Teachers With Kids Strained by Lack of Child Care

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