Back to School: Working Parents Will Need Help from Employers


Jul 17, 2020

Social distancing dividers for students in a classroom at St. Benedict School in Montebello, near Los Angeles, California, July 14, 2020, photo  by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Physical distancing dividers for students in a classroom at St. Benedict School in Montebello, near Los Angeles, California, July 14, 2020

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on USA Today on July 16, 2020.

You've just been notified that a child in your daughter's class has tested positive for COVID-19 and that your daughter has to quarantine at home for 14 days. Questions start racing through your mind. Who's going to watch her for the next two weeks—especially since she has been exposed to COVID-19? Can I take time off from work, or will I lose my job if I do? Will we have enough money for food and rent?

The case for reopening schools and day care centers during the pandemic is strong. Reopening them would provide much-needed child care for parents and other caregivers who need to work, help feed the 30 million U.S. children (PDF) who rely on low-cost or free school meals, and prevent further inequitable learning losses.

Problems with Reopening Schools

However, reopening schools also means exposing more kids to the virus. As cases of COVID-19 increase around the country, children in day cares are already testing positive. The numbers will rise as school-age children return to class. Meanwhile, there is still a lot we don't know about children's role in spreading the virus, and fall will bring the usual runny noses and fevers, making things even more complicated.

The combined effect will be major disruption for families. Children who develop viral symptoms will need to stay home and might need to get tested or see their doctor. And many more children will need to quarantine—even though they don't have symptoms.

As more families and employers will soon learn, public health experts recommend that anyone in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case should quarantine for 14 days (PDF). This means keeping the exposed child home while watching for symptoms. Children in the same classroom, particularly younger children, will almost certainly be in “close contact,” defined as being within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes. Right now, no COVID-19 test can guarantee that your child can safely stop quarantining early.

As employers start expecting their employees to return, having a place to send children will be essential for working parents. But unpredictable quarantines will be severely disruptive.

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As employers start expecting their employees to come back to work, having a place to send their children will be essential for working parents—but unpredictable quarantines will be severely disruptive. With schools closed, parents across the country were mostly in the same difficult boat as they juggled parenting with other personal and professional responsibilities. This will not be the case in the fall as states and school districts take different approaches to reopening, and individual children and classrooms are unexpectedly quarantined.

Furthermore, we are already seeing confusion about quarantines. In our own practices, for example, we have seen when day care centers identify a positive case, some centers recommend that exposed classmates get tested for COVID-19. If their tests are negative, parents are told, those children can immediately return to day care—not a good idea because the disease can spread to others before symptoms appear or a test is positive.

Parents are understandably stressed and even angry when they learn of the need for a 14-day quarantine. Yet if families, day cares, and schools don't follow this recommendation, the virus may spread unchecked.

Impact on Reopening the Economy

These COVID-19-related disruptions will hamper efforts to reopen the economy. Parents whose children are quarantined may have to miss several days of work or won't be able to work at full capacity while also taking care of their kids.

We should prepare for these inevitable disruptions now, and employers can take the lead. For instance, employers can develop backup staffing plans and cross-train employees to perform essential functions, like hospitals did when their staff were getting sick or needing to quarantine. Employers could also explore expanded and nonpunitive paid family leave, flexible work schedules and locations for parents, and subsidized emergency child care when schools or day cares close unexpectedly. To make these strategies possible for smaller businesses, policymakers will need to consider whether to cover the costs of these programs.

We should prepare now for the inevitable disruptions of schoolchildren having to quarantine. Employers can take the lead.

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Greater awareness of quarantine guidelines—among employers, schools, day cares, and families—is needed to set expectations. And how these guidelines will be implemented should be clearly communicated from employers to their employees and from schools and day cares to students, families, and staff.

Finally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could evaluate whether a shorter, less disruptive quarantine period for children could contain the virus since current COVID-19 quarantine guidance relies on minimal data from kids.

Ultimately, a successful U.S. pandemic response must ensure that children can thrive. We should be preparing now for disruptions we know lie ahead for children, families, and employers. With better preparedness, fewer of us will be left scrambling as we work to get through the pandemic together.

Dr. Charlene Wong, a pediatrician and health policy researcher at Duke University, serves as the executive director of the North Carolina Integrated Care for Kids Model. Dr. Laura Faherty is a pediatrician and health services researcher at the RAND Corporation. Drs. Wong and Faherty each have two daughters.