This fall, back-to-school may block back-to-work for many parents
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When K-12 schools start up again over the next few weeks, many districts will be teaching students online-only. A survey in Education Week found that as of the first week in August, 17 of the 20 biggest districts in the U.S. will begin remotely due to the high prevalence of COVID-19 in their city or state. Those include Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Denver, Charlotte, North Carolina; Fairfax County, Virginia; and Prince George’s County, Maryland.
All those kids being schooled at home will need watching, as well as help with their online learning. And parents — predominantly mothers — will provide that supervision, making it very hard for them to keep working and earning a living.
Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), passed as part of the CARES Act by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in March, is supposed to help parents with children at home due to COVID-19. But it’s not working for a lot of working parents.
In late July, the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools delivered news that will shape parents’ lives in the fall: Due to surging COVID-19 cases in the metro area, in-person instruction is not feasible or safe for the start of the school year. So students will be learning at home when school begins Sept. 2.
Seattle parent Jennifer Zagelow has already been through the online-learning drill with her son Jack. The third-grader’s elementary school shut down in March, at the start of the pandemic.
Zagelow had recently lost her job as a legal assistant and was trying to find a new job that she could do part time from home. “Since I wasn’t working, I was taking Jack three days a week,” Zagelow said. She said her ex-husband took care of Jack the other two school days.
Zagelow applied for Washington state jobless benefits and was denied. “You can’t get unemployment, it turns out, if you have to care for a child.”
But she had a fallback: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. It’s for workers who don’t qualify for regular state jobless benefits — including parents who aren’t working because their kids’ school or day care is closed due to COVID-19.
(Department of Labor guidance issued April 5, 2020, lists as one of the reasons for qualifying for PUA: “A child or other person in the household for which the individual has primary caregiving responsibility is unable to attend school or another facility that is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency and such school or facility care is required for the individual to work.”)
Except, said Zagelow, “I ended up being denied PUA. They said benefits are not for people who can telework.” That’s in spite of the fact that she hadn’t actually landed a telecommuting job.
Zagelow is not alone.
“Most workers — jobless workers — have had a really hard time applying for PUA,” said Drake Hagner, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Washington, D.C.
Hagner said thousands of applicants in the district have had to wait months to find out if they qualify. She said eligibility rules are confusing: To get benefits, a parent generally has to certify that they’re available for work — even if they can’t actually take a job because they have kids stuck at home due to COVID-19.
And there are plenty of other snags keeping parents from getting federal jobless benefits.
“Almost nothing is going right,” said Indi Dutta-Gupta, director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law School.
Dutta-Gupta’s team is surveying states to determine how available and accessible child care is, five months into the pandemic. He said day care, after-school and summer programs have been severely cut back nationwide. But as long as some care is available in a given area — no matter how limited or oversubscribed it may be — working parents are still being denied benefits.
“States have made the burden quite unreasonable for parents when there’s not a complete closure of a child care facility,” Dutta-Gupta said, “when the parents might rely on family, where schools are arguably technically open but certainly do not provide needed care for parents to work.”
Legal Aid attorney Hagner said parents face increased uncertainty heading into the fall, with COVID-19 still rampant and school reopening plans in flux in urban, suburban and rural districts.
“What exactly happens when schools are only open for maybe half of the week,” Hagner asked, “for half of the kids, for online learning? Can people still get their benefits, or not?”
One thing is clear: If local schools reopen but parents keep their kids at home — because they’re afraid their children will catch COVID-19 and/or spread it to vulnerable family members — parents don’t qualify for PUA jobless benefits.
Seattle mother Zagelow appealed her unemployment denials and won. After five months without benefits, she’s getting a lump-sum payment going back to mid-March.
Meanwhile, she and her son Jack are getting ready to start the new school year. “They’re fully online,” Zagelow said, “and I have no choice but to find a telecommute job 2½ days a week.”
Until she does, she will receive a Washington state jobless benefit of around $540 a week.
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