SAN DIEGO — The headline on July 13 — Los Angeles and San Diego Schools to Go Online-Only in the Fall — hit our household like a lightning bolt.
I cursed loudly in the small sunroom-turned-office of our rented house in Southeast San Diego. “I just read it,” my wife called back telepathically from the kitchen, where she was making lunch for our two boys, ages five and six.
Like so many working parents, we were counting on K-12 schooling to provide not only education but indispensable childcare. Online distance learning, on the other hand, required intense adult supervision for our soon-to-be kindergartener and first grader.
The lightning strike sparked an at-times thunderous debate: Should one of us quit our job and go on unemployment? Could our extended family help? Could we afford a tutor to oversee distance learning? Would the kids even follow a tutor’s instructions?
None of those seemed like great options. So last week we finally decided that I would take emergency family leave, a temporary program created by Congress in March under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
There’s no data yet on how many people are using the program, but the need is obvious. A recent New York Times survey found that more than half of parents plan to help their kids distance learn while also holding down paid work. And four out of five parents said they had no in-person help, such as from relatives, nannies or tutors.
“A big problem is so many people don’t know about” the federal leave program, said Netsy Firestein, senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education. “It should be better advertised.”
The Families First act guarantees that parents and guardians of school-aged children can take up to 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds of their regular pay, capped at $200 a day, if local schools and daycares are physically closed due to the pandemic.
We knew about the program because my wife had been using it for the last 10 weeks. She enrolled after her employer, a local homeless services nonprofit, forced its employees to return to the office. Taking leave limited her potential exposure to the virus, while allowing me to continue working for the Union-Tribune through the summer.
Employers must foot the bill, although those costs can be recouped through a dollar-for-dollar refundable tax credit under the law. The rules only apply to businesses with 50 to 500 employees.
The amount of time off workers are eligible for is reduced by any leave they took in the last 12 months under the Family Medical Leave Act, such as to care for a newborn baby.
The emergency-leave program expires on Dec. 31.
Before the pandemic, we would often feel guilty for not spending more time with our kids. The younger one went to preschool from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and the older one to first grade from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., remaining on campus in the San Diego Unified School District’s aftercare program, PrimeTime, until around 6 p.m.
Over weekend beers, we’d commiserate with other parents about how little time we spent with our kids. “I couldn’t even tell you what they do at school,” was a common refrain.
We were granted our wish for more family time through a Faustian bargain.
At first, working from home was a novelty. I cranked out stories from the sunroom — many of them about the pandemic — while my wife, who hadn’t taken leave yet, worked from the table in the living room. We cultivated a sense of camaraderie around trying to survive the pandemic, hoping it wouldn’t last more than a few months.
We recognized that many didn’t have the luxury of working remotely. Nurses, grocery-store clerks and other essential workers have, for months, been forced to seek out childcare wherever they could find it. In San Diego, the YMCA provides a service that connects desperate parents to licensed daycare providers.
However, the charm of our situation faded fast. My wife routinely struggled to get our 6-year-old to complete his online school assignments, hampered by the distraction of his preschool-aged brother lollygagging about. The kids increasingly bounced off the walls and yelled over our phone and video calls.
My older son at one point ripped a mounted shelf out of the drywall in our bedroom, creating a weekend’s worth of spackling and painting for me.
Our jobs — which usually require 40 or more hours a week of undivided attention — are just too demanding to try to pile on basic childcare and schooling.
Eventually, we succumbed to controlling them with long stretches of screen time, comforting ourselves with the fact that our oldest child, the youngest kid in his class, could repeat first grade.
That’s when my wife’s employer informed its workers they could no longer work from home and would have to report to the office.
It felt like salt in a gaping wound. We had toiled for weeks, juggling home and work life, in many ways sacrificing our children’s education for our jobs, only to discover it wasn’t good enough.
In response, my wife signed up for the emergency family-leave program. Taking the reduced pay wasn’t an easy decision, especially since she makes about $75,000 a year, compared to my annual salary of roughly $63,000. But she wanted to postpone the dangers of returning to an office environment during a pandemic.
We are lucky to be able to survive without my wife’s full check. Many people, especially those making minimum wage, cannot afford the pay cut, said Jenya Cassidy, director of the nonprofit California Work & Family Coalition.
“To be honest, I am just really scared that there’s just not enough of a support system or safety net in place for working parents right now,” she said.
It seemed, though, that we might scrape by. School was slated to start right around the time my wife’s leave expired.
Then came the news that fall classes would be conducted online.
We quickly reached out to our friends with young children to form a childcare “pod.” We hired two young women to oversee about half a dozen kids at a park from 1 to 4 p.m.
While it’s costing us about $500 a month, our boys have benefited tremendously from the social interaction. Still, that didn’t solve the issue of distance learning.
One of the parents in our pod, Kinsee Morlan, suggested that our families share a tutor three mornings out of the week, for roughly $800 a month each. She said trying to work and teach her and her husband’s two boys during the spring was completely overwhelming.
“Our family was falling apart,” she said. “I know that sounds dramatic, but that’s how bad it was.”
Morlan is now building a makeshift classroom in their backyard. She purchased a large shade structure, school desks and moved their dining room table outside.
“We have no idea if this will work,” she said. “The cost are slowly but surely mounting up, and that’s been pretty impactful.”
With my wife’s leave about to expire, we decided I would take the emergency leave before hiring a tutor. Bringing on extra help would require us to eat into our modest savings. Plus, I’m not sure how my boys would react. I’m not even sure whether they’ll listen when I try to make them do schoolwork.
Recently, there’s been talk that in-person classes could resume in San Diego if the region continues to keep its infection rates down. However, I can’t bank on that. Even if our school does open, there’s no guarantee it will stay open, especially if we start seeing outbreaks in classrooms.
I’m now mentally preparing for the next three months to be completely exhausting. Although, with a little luck and elbow grease, it’ll also be a chance for the Smith boys to bond.
©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune