Despite a fall semester dotted with disruptions, schools across the country opened their doors in the new year, even as the omicron variant surged. And as COVID-19 cases sent kids into endless cycles of quarantines, many parents scrambled to manage caregiving while working full time.
For Laura, a K-8 special-education teacher in Chicago who asked to use only her first name to protect her identity, it was hard enough to manage childcare responsibilities alongside professional obligations even before COVID-19. “I did not have any paid time off with my first [child],” she says. “I timed the second birth, to the best of my ability, because as a teacher, I’m not paid for the summers.”
But nearly two years into the pandemic, Laura says it has become completely untenable to continue working in person while taking care of two young children. Last fall, just one week after Chicago schools resumed in person, her kids—a 5-year-old who had just started school and a 2-year-old in daycare—were sent home to quarantine due to an exposure. After 18 months of trying to balance remote teaching and childcare, Laura decided she needed to take leave.
She talked to Fast Company about the grueling demands of teaching and parenting through the pandemic and what she plans to do next, once her leave runs out. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
“In those eight weeks [my kids] went to school one day”
[In March 2020] I was still nursing my then 9-month-old. So I would wake up and log in at 8 a.m. When he was available, my husband would stay [home] until 10:30 or noon. I would teach a class in the morning online through Zoom in the basement, and my husband and kids would be upstairs stomping around. My husband would usually get them a snack and then hand them off to me; I would teach another class, try to put them both down for a nap, and run back down to the basement, which was often destroyed by markers and Legos and sticky notes. I would teach a class while they were napping, and then I would get them up. My students would do a little bit of work on their own, and we would check back in at 3 p.m. to say goodbye. And then I was right back to parenting.
After childcare facilities opened back up in the spring, we did send our children back—and they were exposed. One would be home because of an exposure, and the other one’s classroom would have an exposure. Both of their classrooms closed for eight straight weeks, back-to-back. In those eight weeks, they went to school one day. And we paid for childcare that entire time; the location is a block from our home, and we love them. We ended up paying for another four weeks to save our spot before we gave it up.
I stayed home with [my kids] throughout that summer. We weighed our options, and we hired a nanny while I remote taught for most of the last school year. It was the only option. We just said, for our own sanity, we have to do this right now.
What was really challenging was we cut [the nanny’s] hours down, so she just covered the kids while I was working. And prior to that I had a window when I could grocery shop, or be alone in my own home for more than 10 minutes. I completely lost that. I even had to sneak out the back door of our basement and get lunch. I couldn’t go upstairs to use the bathroom because my kids didn’t know I was home. I had to on a couple of occasions, and [my kids] were screaming and crying for 45 minutes after I left. So I had to go out the back door and walk to our local Target to use the bathroom during the day.
“It’s been in utter chaos”
In Chicago, we were not provided a remote learning option [last] fall. So my 5-year-old had to go to school in person, and because of that, we made the choice to send our 2-year-old to an in-person program as well. I went back in person fully. Within the first week, the kids were home sick. It was really challenging—there was still a three-to-five-day wait period to get a PCR test back. So my husband and I both took days off, and within the first four weeks I had exhausted seven of my ten paid sick days. I think at my husband’s work, they get five sick days for 12 months, and he exhausted those.
[My employer] requested I get a doctor’s note. I said, “Our contract says that if I’m out more than three days consecutively, or if you suspect that I’m abusing my sick days, I’ll need to send you a sick note.” She doubled down and told me that I would need to send her a note. And since I hadn’t been out for three consecutive days, she was insinuating that it was the latter—that I was misusing my sick days.
The devastation I felt when I was sacrificing so much of myself for my employer and for my students—it was the straw that just totally broke me. For the next couple of days, I sat in my car crying. I ended up resigning, and when my employer got my letter of resignation, she emailed me back immediately and asked if I would reconsider and look at my options for a leave. So I looked into it.
I had a mental health diagnosis and had been dealing a lot with outbursts of tears; it had been weighing on me so much, and I had lost 11 pounds in three weeks. I ended up taking short-term disability leave with partial pay, which ran out in January, and I’m now on unpaid leave until March covered by FMLA (the Family and Medical Leave Act). Then I’ll have to decide if I’ll resign or take more unpaid leave, because my kids continue to be sent home.
I think I had been advocating pretty loudly for grace, for myself and for my peers. Not only are teachers dealing with their own families and the regular demands of teaching, but it’s been in utter chaos. I feel like I had been really up front about my needs for safety. Maybe I was coming off as paranoid. But I also think that tension has just been really high between administrators who don’t have the resources to support their staff, and staff who are just floundering.
“Nothing functions unless our families are provided for”
I think that whatever I take on next might be in curriculum development or advocacy. At this point, not knowing when I’ll have access to childcare, it is nearly impossible to think of me going back to a classroom where children rely on me. The only opportunities I’m [seeking] out are remote [or part time] because I need to deal with the fact that my kids could be home at any moment for two weeks.
My husband has shortened his hours in the evening so that he can take some of the load off my plate. And just two weeks ago, I was in tears because I wanted to take an opportunity, and I just can’t. I just can’t because of our lack of access to childcare.
At this point, we’re on one income. I’ve never not had a job. And aside from the financial hit, I don’t feel productive because—unfortunately—I’ve always tied part of my worth and part of my joy to working with other people and being productive.
I now have an understanding that I need to find an employer where my role as a care provider is honored. In the last year, I’ve come to realize that nothing functions unless our families are provided for, and capitalism can’t keep going on unless parents are available to do the work. Kids need to be cared for first for that to happen. I think back to being a teacher and a parent and pumping in between classes and having engorged and leaking breasts while teaching children because I didn’t have a break in between classes. And I don’t think I can ever put myself through that ever again.
When I was accused, whether or not it was explicit or not, of misusing my sick days, I was totally dehumanized. Every ounce of motivation I had—that I’m doing this because I’m needed, I’m doing this because my boss cares about me—all of it went out the window. I realized that no one’s going to care for my family unless I do it.