As the COVID-19 pandemic becomes ever more severe in the United States, city and state governments have ordered schools and daycares across the country to close their doors to in-person classes. Although not all 50 states have taken such drastic measures as of this writing, it’s not unimaginable that every school system in America might shut down in an effort to flatten the curve on the spread of infection.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), closing schools could help keep families and communities safe. Though most children who’ve contracted the virus have experienced only mild or no symptoms, they can spread the infection to adults — including those at high risk of severe symptoms — without even knowing it.
But for many American families, facing weeks or even months of school closures isn’t only about finding child care coverage. According to 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 61.1% of married-couple families with children, both parents work. And a 2016 analysis of U.S. Census data by the Pew Research Center found that only 18% of all U.S. parents didn’t. That puts the majority of U.S. families in a bind when schools close.
Compounding the problem even further, according to a 2019 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, nearly 1 in 4 workers in the U.S. have no paid time off. And even among those who do, the average amount is 10 days, according to 2017 BLS data — not nearly enough to deal with pandemic-related school closures. Worse, according to a 2019 survey of Americans by GoBankingRates, almost 70% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. All this means huge portions of Americans can’t afford to be off work for extended periods without suffering devastating financial consequences.
That makes preparing for school closures potentially one of the most critical forms of coronavirus preparation you can do.
Leaving Kids Home Alone
Parents of older children may be wondering if it’s possible to leave their kids home alone while they go to work. But answering that is complicated. It involves both legal questions and considerations of the mental and emotional maturity of each child.
Know the Law
Only a few states specify a legal age at which you can leave kids home alone. Ages range from 8 (Maryland) to 14 (Illinois). Instead, most states offer guidelines that test a child’s ability to be left at home. They include the child’s age and maturity level, the overall safety of the home, and any arrangements made to secure the child’s safety.
The most reliable indicators are your local laws. Following their guidelines will provide the peace of mind that you’ve done everything the legal system requires of you if anyone ever questions your decision. To get this information, call your local child protective services agency and ask them directly for guidance.
In general, most local and regional areas recommend never leaving a child under the age of 12 home alone all day. Similarly, a nationwide survey of 485 members of the National Association of Social Workers presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2019 National Conference & Exhibition found this is the age overwhelmingly agreed upon. Although every child’s level of maturity differs, a child should be a minimum of 12 before you consider leaving them home all day by themselves.
Assess Your Child’s Readiness
Despite legal guidelines, even a 12-year-old may not be ready to be left alone all day. Parents must decide on an individual basis whether their child is old enough to stay home alone.
Factors to consider include:
- The Child’s Maturity Level. Has your child shown good judgment in the past? Can they stick to your rules? Are they emotionally ready to handle the isolation of being alone all day?
- The Child’s Level of Independence. Do they know how to perform tasks for themself, like making their own lunch? Do they know how to dial 911? Do they know what to do in case of a fire? Will they be able to follow the plan if an emergency happens?
- The Length of Time. Most guidelines advise never leaving a child under 12 alone for more than a few hours or a child under 16 alone overnight.
- The Age and Number of Other Children. Some states have laws requiring kids to be a minimum of 13 before they’re allowed to babysit other children. But Today’s Parent suggests you can leave a child as young as 11 in charge of a younger sibling. Absent legal guidelines, it depends on the capabilities of your child. But the younger they are and the more younger siblings they have, the less likely it’s a good idea. And it’s probably inappropriate to leave a 12-year-old or younger in charge of an infant or a sibling with special needs, both of whom require greater levels of care.
- The Safety of the Neighborhood. Are you friendly with your neighbors? Are there any dangerous people (such as sex offenders) living there? Could leaving your child home alone create a dangerous situation for them?
- Whether the Child Feels Safe and Competent Staying at Home. It doesn’t matter how safe your neighborhood is if your child doesn’t feel safe staying home alone. If they don’t feel ready, then they’re probably not.
Educate Your Child & Make Sure Your Home Is Safe
If leaving a child home alone becomes necessary and you feel they’re ready, make sure to follow these safety tips:
- Make sure your child knows their full name, address, and phone number.
- Post a list of all necessary numbers to call in case of an emergency, including doctors’ numbers and relatives or friends they can call if they can’t reach you.
- Be sure to check in with your child several times throughout the day — and make sure they know how important it is to answer the phone when you call.
- Teach them how to work the locks on all doors and windows and to keep them locked at all times.
- Make sure they know never to open the door to anyone they don’t know.
- Designate a “safe house” — a trusted at-home neighbor — for them to run to if they feel they’re in danger.
- Never allow a child to work the oven or stove without an adult present.
- Stock up on everyday goods like paper towels and toilet paper, healthy snacks, and emergency supplies like flashlights.
- Lock up any hazardous items, such as alcohol, knives, guns, and medications. If your child needs to take any medications while you’re gone, leave only a precise dose.
Set Some Ground Rules
In addition to making sure a child’s environment is safe and secure, parents should also set a few personalized ground rules. For example, make rules about whether they must do schoolwork (if teachers have assigned any) or chores. Also, work out how they can prepare meals or snacks, what they should do if the doorbell rings, and what they should do if they smell something funny. Parents and kids should also agree on how and when to check in.
Some other things to consider making ground rules about include:
- Having friends over while you’re not there
- Any off-limits rooms in the house
- Internet and TV rules
- Posting on social media (for example, they should never post about being home alone)
Do a Practice Run
Even if you feel confident your child will be fine, before leaving them home alone all day, do a practice run. Let your child stay home alone for an hour or two while you do some errands. When you return, talk about how it went. You might decide you need to adjust some ground rules or practice some safety skills.
Negotiating to Work From Home
If you have a child under the age of 12 — or aren’t sure your 12-year-old is ready — the next step is to find out if it’s possible to work from home. According to 2018 BLS statistics, 29% of American workers can do their jobs remotely, including more than half of those who work in the financial and information industries.
And thankfully, due to current social distancing guidelines, many employers are allowing workers to do their jobs from home if possible. So the first step is to find out if your company has a COVID-related remote work plan. If not, point out that many cities and states have already mandated business closures of all but essential personnel, such as hospital workers, pharmacists, grocery store clerks, and those who work in essential communications. So if your area hasn’t yet ordered it, it may be coming. Ask your boss for a trial run. That way, if you realize there’s a hole in your plan and need to run back to the office for something vital, you still can.
But know that many employers remain reluctant to have employees work from home. Employers have always feared that remote work decreases productivity. So the key to negotiating remote work is to prove you can maintain or even exceed the level of productivity you had at the office.
To put together a convincing proposal, examine these elements:
- Work-From-Home Needs. Before approaching your employer, make sure you have a concrete plan. What will your day look like? How will you accomplish your tasks? What kinds of technology and equipment do you need? Videoconferencing software? Remote access to your job’s private network or a virtual private network like NordVPN? Are there any accountability and measurement tools you can use?
- Benefits to Your Employer. Focus on the benefits to your employer rather than your own needs. Explain how you can maintain productivity and how it can help them continue doing business if your physical location must close.
- Collect and Present Research. Even before the coronavirus pandemic threatened everyone with the need for remote work, research found it was highly beneficial. For example, A 2019 study from Airtasker, a gig economy platform, found that remote workers tend to take fewer breaks, work with more focus, and be intentional with their time. Plus, they work an average of 1.4 more days per month and 16.8 more days per year. And a 2019 Harvard analysis found remote workers were 4.4% more productive than in-office employees. While that sounds like a minor difference, the researchers concluded it represented $1.3 billion of annual revenue added to the U.S. economy.
After you’ve put together your proposal, all that’s left is to present it. Instead of emailing it to your boss, set up a time to talk. And if possible, approach your boss as a group. There’s strength in numbers. Chances are many of your co-workers are in the same boat and would welcome the ability to band together.
Occupying Your Kids So You Can Work
If you secure the ability to work from home, you have to figure out how to care for and supervise your kids while also getting your work done. And despite the statistics about the greater productivity of remote workers, the reality is that none of those numbers specifically include work-at-home parents.
And it can be extremely tricky if your kids are young. Tweens are relatively independent, but it’s dangerous to leave a toddler unsupervised — if they’d even let you. The trick is to find activities to keep your kids safely occupied and entertained long enough for you to get at least short bursts of work done. And ideally, they can do these activities nearby so you can keep an eye on them.
A few ideas for keeping kids of all ages occupied while you work include:
- Babies: You can strap babies to your chest in a baby carrier or place them for short periods (no more than 20 minutes) in baby swings or gliders. You can put an infant old enough to sit up and play with small objects in a play yard with some toys that aren’t a choking hazard, like soft blocks and rubber balls, or anything with pushable buttons that cause lights and sounds, like the Baby Einstein Octopus Orchestra. And take advantage of your baby monitor during nap times. Once you set them safely in a crib or play yard, you can use the monitor to take a break to work in another room.
- Toddlers: Toddlers can also be contained with play yards and baby gates and given age-appropriate toys to keep them busy — especially interactive ones like an activity cube or the Fisher-Price Smooth Moves Sloth. Sensory bins are also wonderful distractions. Find ideas for creative sensory bins at Best Toys for Toddlers, Hello Creative Family, or Picklebums.
- Preschoolers and Kindergarteners: For preschoolers and kindergarteners, think of arts-and-crafts projects like free coloring pages from sites like Crayola. Or let them use washable paints on egg cartons, cardboard boxes, toilet paper tubes, or aluminum foil. You can also try a Play-Doh activity set or kinetic sand.
- Elementary-Aged Kids: You can keep older children occupied for longer with more complex projects like weaving friendship bracelets or the pipe cleaner dragons on Blissful Domestication. They can also spend some time reading. Unless their teachers have assigned reading homework, let them pick their own books. It’s more fun for them, which makes it more likely to keep them entertained.
- All Ages: If all else fails, consider relaxing your usual limitations on screen time. These are unique times. Do whatever works to get through them. And if that’s handing your child a tablet, letting them play video games, or sitting them in front of the TV to watch Disney+ or Netflix, give yourself permission to let go of the guilt. Over the short term, your kids will be just fine. For an extensive list of the best kids shows on Netflix, visit Parenthood Times.
Arranging Child Care Assistance
Not all parents can do their jobs remotely — bus drivers, firefighters, and pharmacists are just a few examples. And according to the 2018 BLS statistics, that’s 71% of American jobs. Additionally, even if states order the closure of all businesses, jobs considered essential won’t shut down. That means anyone deemed an essential worker must keep working even if their kids’ schools close. Although that includes medical personnel, it also includes jobs like grocery store clerks and telecommunications workers.
Even for parents who can work at home, doing so with young children around is difficult. And for those parents who have children with special needs, it borders on impossible.
Plus, there’s the expense to consider. According to UrbanSitter’s 2020 National Childcare Rate Survey, which polled more than 25,000 families across the U.S., the average hourly rate for in-home child care is $17.73 for one child, $20.30 for two, and $21.49 for three. Even in the best of times, child care is out of reach for many American families.
To save money on babysitting, many families turn to relatives for help — grandparents in particular. According to The Washington Post, grandparents care for 40% of American children. But the COVID-19 pandemic has hit older generations the hardest. According to a March 18, 2020, analysis by the CDC, 80% of deaths have been among those older than 60. Now is not a time to seek help from older grandparents.
Also, with social distancing policies in effect, even families who already had caregivers may end up losing them. As one nanny tells Time, there’s no social distancing with kids. It’s all very hands-on — from preparing meals to wiping noses to changing diapers. Then there’s the matter of how they got to your home. If you live in a city, caregivers may have traveled by subway or bus, exposing themselves to dozens of people (and therefore lots of germs) on the trip. Because of that, many nannies have simply stopped working.
So, what’s a parent to do? In some areas, The New York Times reports local organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs, which already offer some child care programs, are expanding their hours. And Cincinnati.com notes the YMCA is providing child care for first responders and hospital workers in Ohio. So it could prove worthwhile to see if anything like that exists in your area.
Additionally, many people are temporarily out of work due to government-mandated business closures — from day care workers to restaurant servers to salon stylists. Hiring someone out of work to help care for your children helps you both. You get the ability to keep working, and so do they. Just be sure everyone involved practices CDC recommendations for social distancing. Caregivers should continue to avoid large gatherings and be rigorous about handwashing.
Another option is to hire a teen or college student who’s also home from school. They may be bored and looking for something to do. The New York Times, for example, reports on a group of teens in Seattle who’ve started a babysitting collective to help parents who are in a bind because of school closures.
Adjusting Your Work Routine
When all else fails, you may have to adjust your work routine. If you can’t do your job remotely, see if you can work a different shift and trade off with your spouse. Long before the coronavirus, my husband and I did that to save money on the high cost of child care. I would teach in the morning, and he’d start his work shift in the afternoon. We’d “tag” each other in passing, accepting that it was not forever.
Even if you and your spouse are both working from home, you may still have to tag-team. Start each day by discussing what’s on your plates and plan who’s on kid duty around the times you each need to do highly focused work. Even if you both need to work eight-hour days, there are ebbs and flows in every workday between work that requires intense focus and work that’s easier to multitask while you squish play dough with your toddler.
Alternatively, you may need to wake up early and do work before the kids are up or work late into the night after the kids go to sleep. Although sleep deprivation can kill productivity and isn’t great for keeping you healthy, sometimes, we have to do what we have to do.
And many Americans are single parents who must juggle all the tasks of parenting on their own. In those cases, there’s not much more a parent can do than reach out to friends, neighbors, and relatives to see if anyone can help out or swap child care duties around different schedules. Parenting has long required a village, so lean into yours as much as possible.
Keeping Kids Up With Academics
When schools close midyear, kids aren’t just missing out on a place to go and things to do. They’re missing out on their academics too. And despite school systems around the country initially closing for only two to three weeks, many school systems and even states have indicated it could be for the rest of the school year, as reported by CNN.
That’s a lot to miss. As a teacher, I can tell you the “summer backslide” — kids’ learning regressing during the summer and needing to spend the first few weeks of every fall relearning what was lost — is real. And for millions of U.S. students, current school closures are likely to be the beginning of the longest summer ever.
To keep kids from backsliding academically during the extended break, some school districts have promised to put online classes in place to keep students learning. Other schools have sent kids home with resources like devices and workbooks. Many schools have yet to do any of these things. And there’s the reality that millions of students in low-income areas have no reliable access to the Internet or home computers to access coursework. Additionally, most cities that have closed schools have also closed public libraries, removing a once-available alternative.
On top of that, as reported by USA Today, there has been little to no government guidance on whether schools must continue to provide learning amid this unique situation.
That leaves a lot up to parents, who are already challenged by the attempt to juggle kids and work. Now, millions of parents are afraid they must home-school their children as well. And further compounding that problem is the reality that it’s challenging to sell little ones with short attention spans on online learning. Parents who try to get their own work done and simultaneously enforce class work are in for a tough ride.
But all isn’t lost. No one expects parents to take the place of their child’s teacher. You haven’t been trained for it, after all. Instead, look to resources provided by well-established platforms currently offering free access to families during COVID-19-related school closures.
Some of the best options include:
- Scholastic. This children’s book publisher is offering a variety of free online courses so kids can keep learning at home. They build each lesson around a story or video with four separate learning experiences kids can do on their own.
- Google Arts & Culture. Although museums around the globe are closed because of the pandemic, Google Earth has partnered with 1,200 of the world’s leading museums and cultural sites — like the Louvre and the Guggenheim — to offer virtual tours. Kids can get up close and personal with some of the world’s masterpieces without needing to fight the crowds.
- Club SciKidz. This science lab site posts a different daily science experiment kids can do using common household ingredients and materials. For example, one instructs kids to use the scientific method to discover which household ingredient best cleans a dirty penny.
- ABCmouse. An excellent tool for keeping kids in pre-K through second grade learning, this comprehensive platform offers more than 850 self-guided lessons across 10 levels and five classroom subjects: English, math, science, social studies, and art. You can talk with your child’s teacher or school system about getting your child set up to use the program for free during coronavirus closures. Or take advantage of their special offer of two months for $5.
- Prodigy. Your first- through eighth-grader can learn math while playing a video game with this platform. Plus, kids can play with their friends online, helping them stay socially connected while they have to refrain from attending school or get-togethers.
- Adventure Academy. Another game-based learning platform, Adventure Academy can help keep kids connected while they play 13 math, reading, social studies, and science games. Kids can get the first month free or enlist their teacher’s help to get free home access through their school for the duration of the closure.
These are uncertain times. But hopefully, it’s temporary. Government officials are moving to stop the spread of a lethal and rapidly contagious disease, pass laws to boost the economy, keep hospitals from being overwhelmed, and ensure the health and safety of as many Americans as possible. But that doesn’t make it any easier for parents, who already worry about so much when it comes to our kids.
If possible, try to keep up with any coursework your school district has requested your child do. But give yourself permission to let some things go if you can’t. It’s next to impossible to do it all — work, parent, and also teach — all at the same time. So do the best you can and recognize that in this situation, your best is good enough.
How are you planning to deal with COVID-19 school closures? Are your kids already at home?