As she watches her three boys play in the backyard, Acacia Clark can’t help but be consumed by an overwhelming sense of anxiety as she thinks ahead to the coming school year.
It’s been a long four months for Clark and her husband, who are both trying to juggle full-time jobs, while at the same time, raise their young kids who haven’t been inside a classroom since March.
“My focus on my work has been abysmal,” Clark said, as one of her 6-year-old twin boys asks her for a popsicle. “I’ll get in a few minutes here or there, but it’s been very stressful.”
The COVID-19 outbreak meant schools in Newton, Massachusetts, where this family resides, had to be shut down. Across the country, school districts are carefully weighing their options about reopening in the middle of a pandemic.
Clark wants her children to have the daily structure of school back in their lives. However, she's also incredibly concerned about someone in her family catching the virus.
“What if one of us gets sick? That means the whole house would get sick. Then, how do we work?” she wondered.
That is the reality facing countless families across the country.
“It’s more than being stuck between a rock and a hard place, it’s just being stuck in a hard place constantly and not having a light at the end of the tunnel,” she added.
Families are now having to juggle it all, while at the same time, making sure their kids don’t fall through the cracks.
As some school resume in-person learning, many parents like Clark are worried about what could happen if there’s a sudden outbreak and their child’s school is forced to shut down.
“I can either work or be there for me kids; I can’t do both,” she said.
Recognizing the impossible predicament the pandemic has placed parents in, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act back in March. It gives parents two weeks of paid sick leave if you find yourself having to quarantine. Parents also get two weeks of paid sick leave at two-thirds of their regular salary if the child's school or daycare shuts down because of COVID-19. Additionally, it guarantees 10 weeks of leave at two-thirds of their salary if they need to take care of a sick child.
But those benefits will run out on December 31.
“Employers are recognizing that there has to be a solution. If kids can’t go back to school, parents can’t go back to work full-time,” explained Chris Feudo, an attorney with Foley Hoag in Boston.
As the pandemic enters its fifth month in the United States, Feudo says another issue facing parents is that they’ve already exhausted all of their FMLA leave. Because of that, he says parents should talk to their employers as soon as possible if it appears your child’s school or daycare might shut down because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
“Come up with a plan and say, ‘This is the most I can do for my employer.’ If you have a thought-out plan, it shows you're being proactive and I think employers will be more responsive to that,” he added.
Feudo says if you've run out of FMLA leave and need to ask your boss for more time off to care for family members, it's best to have the conversation in-person, if possible, or via a Zoom or video conference call. He says employers are being more flexible right now because of the outbreak but they need to see that employees are willing to bring up difficult situations before they become major issues.
Under federal law, it’s also illegal for employers to retaliate against someone for using FMLA leave.
As for Clark, she’s still waiting to find out if her district will have in-person learning this fall and she’s doing her best to manage whatever new challenge the pandemic throws her way.
“I don’t know single parents are doing it, especially if they’re trying to bring in a paycheck,” she said.